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GVSU, Muskegon County, and EGLE celebrate 20 years of water quality testing on state beaches

Lab director Brian Scull works on water samples in the laboratory at the Annis Water Resources Institute Photo Credit: Valerie Wojciechowski(The following article ran in GV Next, a publication of Grand Valley State University. MI Environment is running it as part of Great Lakes and Fresh Water Week.)

Grand Valley researchers and students are celebrating 20 years of a partnership between the Annis Water Resources Institute (AWRI), Public Health Muskegon County (PHMC), and the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) that monitors the safety of Muskegon-area beaches to protect public health.

Since 2001, public beaches on Lake Michigan and inland lakes in Muskegon County have been monitored by Grand Valley students and AWRI researchers for pathogen indicators, while providing opportunities for experiential learning and groundbreaking research.

The beach water quality testing is run by Rick Rediske, professor of water resources at Grand Valley's Annis Water Resources Institute in Muskegon. Rediske said water quality testing for E. coli and other pathogen indicators started with Petri dishes and testing that often took until the next day to report results, but technological advances have led to the lab using advanced quantitative Polymerase Chain Reaction (qPCR) testing methods to identify DNA markers of human and animal bacteria. The method looks for a target DNA fragment of an indicator organism and amplifies it so a number of cells present can be estimated in a few hours.

The role of the Rediske lab has grown to include laboratory director Brian Scull providing training on DNA testing methods for other public health labs in the state, and research assistant Molly Lane authoring research papers supporting the approval of DNA-based recreational water test methods as a national standard.

"A major benefit to testing with the qPCR DNA method is the speed with which we can get results back, and if it finds E. coli, we can do further testing to determine if the source is humans, farm animals or wildlife. It also helps us find the source, such as malfunctioning septic systems or runoff of agricultural wastes," Rediske said.

Students play an important role in conducting the water sampling, Rediske said. Undergraduate students sample the beaches and assist with testing, graduate students conduct methods research, and lab staff report the data to state and local public health authorities. qPCR technology is used in forensics, medical research and environmental studies, and using the method provides students with important hands-on training.

"The relationship we have with the Annis Water Resources Institute is beneficial for the county, and we've gone 20 years and been very happy with the results," said Mike Eslick, environmental health director for Muskegon County Public Health. "It's great to have a university in our backyard that supports beach monitoring for our county, and it's great to have experts a phone call away."

Eslick said having results within about five hours from sampling is important and very beneficial to beach users.

"It's a great value if we do have a closure or an advisory, because the public becomes aware in a more useful time frame," Eslick said.

State officials at EGLE said the testing is valuable for tourism and recreation.

"The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy is proud to have worked hand-in-hand for two decades with the Annis Water Resources Institute at Grand Valley and other west Michigan community partners to assess and track beach health. Our partnership has improved science and public health, which ultimately encourages tourism and recreation," said Liesl Clark, director of EGLE.

"Michigan is known for its more than 3,000 miles of Great Lake shoreline and 11,000 inland lakes. The water and beaches run through the fabric of the lives of all Michiganders and we are honored to be a part of an effort that has benefited so many residents of our great state. EGLE's commitment to beach monitoring efforts over the years has allowed us to offer water quality conditions in real time."

Beach monitoring results are posted at the Michigan Beach Guard System.

Photo credit: Valerie Wojciechowski

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