Bacteria takes a toll on Bender Beach swimming season

E. Coli levels have prompted advisories, beach closures

Elevated bacteria levels have forced many beach closures in recent years such as at Pewaukee's beach in 2011. Oak Creek has closed Bender Beach several times this summer.

Elevated bacteria levels have forced many beach closures in recent years such as at Pewaukee's beach in 2011. Oak Creek has closed Bender Beach several times this summer. Photo By Scott Ash

July 31, 2012

Oak Creek - If you're looking to beat the heat, be sure to double check the purity of the water before you swim at a local beach.

Many beaches, including Bender Beach, have seen more advisories and closures due to elevated bacteria levels this summer than in recent years.

Judy Price, Oak Creek community public health officer, said Bender has been closed 12 times since Memorial Day, which is more than she's seen in her six years working with the Health Department.

Last year the beach at Bender Park was closed only two times. In 2010, it was closed seven times, the result of heavy rainfalls creating adverse conditions.

"There have been high levels of E. coli in the water," Price said. "This is due to multiple factors, such as the heat, more birds on the beach, wind direction, the height of waves, and rain. All of these factors, and others, work together."

E. coli, short for Escherichia coli, is a bacterium that can live in human and animal feces. E. coli can be problematic at beaches when feces containing the bacteria makes its way into the water and is then swallowed by a swimmer.

Individuals swimming in water with high E. coli levels can catch the bacteria, which can lead to stomach cramps, nausea or vomiting and bloody diarrhea.

Water with E. coli existing in it is also at risk for other bacteria, viruses, protozoa and worms as well.

The Oak Creek Health Department tests the water twice a week and uses red, yellow and green signs to alert the swimming public to possible hazards. Green means the beach is open and bacteria levels are low, yellow means an advisory is in place and swimming is at your own risk, and red means the beach is closed because of unsafe levels of bacteria in the water.

The beach monitoring season is typically from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend.

Water at the beach is tested twice a week, usually between 9 and 10 a.m., but if there's an advisory or closing it is tested daily. Results aren't available until the day after the test.

Whether at a beach, lake or river, Price said, there are certain precautions visitors need to take, especially under advisory conditions.

"Be sure to dry yourself off completely after getting out of the water, and shower as soon as you can," Price said. "It's important not to swallow any of the water."

Other tips include washing your hands before eating, not littering and changing children's diapers away from the sand or water. The sand, too, can harbor E. coli and other bacteria.

"This has been a very unusual year," Price said. "The weather has a lot to do with the bacteria levels, but it is a whole host of things that have led up to these advisories and closings."

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