Racine’s lab was purchased with grant money, and it has expanded with grant and city money. Kinzelman had to be trained and now uses college students to help run the tests. She credits the city’s beach pride for being on the cutting edge of beach testing.
“Beaches are our identity,” she said. “We’re Racine on the lake.”
Too costly for Chicago, California
But in Chicago, Cathy Breitenbach, director of lakefront operations for the city’s Park District, said it’s not economical.
“We have 24 beaches, we’d have to move up and down 26 miles of coastline, take samples and get them to a lab,” Breitenbach said. “We’d have to start at 2 in the morning” in order to take advantage of the same-day benefits.
No one is using the rapid method in California, said John Griffith, a marine microbiologist at the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project, a research institute that studies coastal pollution.
“We barely have money to do our regular culture testing,” he said.
The EPA should subsidize the DNA test method for states, said Steve Fleischli, water program director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group.
“People want to know what the water is like when they’re in it, not what it was like days beforehand,” Fleischli said.
But Griffith said rapid testing only makes sense at certain beaches.
“If a beach never has a problem, or if you have a chronically contaminated beach, you don’t need a rapid answer and it’d be hard to justify this cost,” Griffith said.
Griffith and colleagues are working on different rapid testing methods with communities along Southern California’s coast. One method, still in the testing phase, is a mobile DNA sampler that sends results to the lab directly from the field.
Predicting water quality
Some beach managers are pairing testing with predictive software, which projects water quality based on weather and water conditions. Briggs said the software is about 90 percent accurate in most Michigan locations.
“Before it was always a guess. Now we’re getting accurate information, and getting it faster,” Briggs said.
And it seems to be working. Michigan beaches were open 97 percent of the time in 2011, according to the EPA. Chicago is focusing on predictive modeling at 15 beaches and the decisions were more accurate than those made by the culture tests, Breitenbach said.
Predictive modeling, however, isn’t used in many ocean communities, where larger waves and less summer rainfall make it much less useful than in the Great Lakes, Griffith said.
The DNA test is included in a set of voluntary recommendations the EPA released last November when it updated water-quality criteria. The EPA’s guidelines recommended that states test beach water and notify the public more quickly.
States and others that used the funding “now have the ability and knowledge to run their own programs without federal support,” according to the budget proposal.
This article originally ran at Environmental Health News, a news source published by Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit media company.