There are theories of root causes for when concentrations of bacteria — including E. coli — rise. But the leader of a group of lakefront homeowners is hoping that advanced water testing can more definitively identify the culprits.
“We want to start putting some science to this instead of hunches,” said Michele Skinner, chairwoman of the Lake Altoona Rehabilitation and Protection District.
State researchers already have tests to determine whether an E. coli sample came from humans or other mammals, but they are working to develop a way to distinguish when the bacteria comes from birds.
To help the State Lab of Hygiene in Madison validate a method for testing E. coli from avian sources, the Eau Claire City-County Health Department will contribute water samples taken from local public beaches when bacteria counts are elevated this summer.
“Any beach where we have a really high E. coli concentration, we would send a very small number of those to support a project that is happening at a lab,” said Matt Steinbach, the health department’s environmental sciences division manager.
Those samples could include water from Lake Altoona’s beach area, as well as several other local beaches regularly tested during summer by the health department. Regular beach water testing usually begins in late May, about a week before Memorial Day.
Steinbach emphasized that the study of this new E. coli test is very preliminary. But if it is shown to work, that would mean water samples sent to the Madison lab in future years could determine if birds are a significant contributor to bacteria in local beach water.
That’s enough to give Skinner hope.
“At least it would point us the way,” she said.
Knowing what kinds of animals are responsible for high bacteria amounts can help with the development of strategies to cut down on beach closures.
A test to identify whether an E. coli sample comes from birds is of interest to the lake resident because waterfowl are among the suspects people have for the spikes in bacteria at Lake Altoona. Canadian geese frequent the public beach there and seagulls seem to be flocking to the water in larger numbers, Skinner said.
The county’s Parks and Forest Department has investigated and tried multiple ways to deter the geese from using the beach and surrounding park to cut down on the amount of bird droppings there.
“Quite honestly it’s been tough to control,” said Josh Pedersen, director of the Parks and Forest Department.
In the early 2000s, the county had dogs and people go to the park to scare off the geese. After that didn’t keep the birds away, the county authorized a pair of hunters to shoot geese there in 2006 and 2007.
A few years ago, the county had raked a natural compound into the beach sand that’s supposed to deter the geese, but Pedersen said that didn’t turn out to be effective.
There haven’t been much for geese control attempts in recent years, but the department does allocate staff to regularly rake the beach and clean up the park before people arrive to swim there.
“We basically are just doing cleanup after the geese now,” Pedersen said.
He’s also aware that there’s a growing presence of seagulls at Lake Altoona that residents have taken note of.
“The gulls have become more of an issue over the past two or three years,” Pedersen said.
To get a better idea of the lake’s bird population and their avian habits, Skinner has recruited some of her lakefront neighbors to keep logs of birds they see. Using calendars, volunteers are urged to take notes on the kinds of birds, their numbers, where they were seen and what time.
Two trail cameras that take time-lapse photography are also being used to document bird activity on Lake Altoona.
The lake district has also gotten a permit to apply vegetable oil to geese eggs — a method to prevent baby birds from hatching — found in nests, but hasn’t yet done that to control the goose population.
But Skinner acknowledges that E. coli from bird droppings is just one of the theories of why the lake gets occasional spikes in bacteria counts at the beach. Another one she’s heard is times when the Eau Claire River level is high from runoff lead to more bacteria to the lake.
Steinbach said he couldn’t say with certainty what causes the elevated bacteria levels.
“We don’t have enough of an assessment done to point at anything definitively,” he said.
Steinbach believes there’s not just one cause for E. coli in Lake Altoona.
“I suspect there’s multiple sources,” he said.
Still, he’s hopeful that advanced water sample testing will help evaluate contributors of bacteria to the lake.
Skinner, too, is hoping that science will be able to give a clearer picture of what’s happening when bacteria rises to the point where it’s unsafe to swim at the beach.
“We just need to get a handle on this,” Skinner said.
During the past two years, the beach did see a significant amount of days when swimming was either prohibited or not advised due to the presence of health hazards.
There were a record 28 days of beach closures due to high bacteria at Lake Altoona during 2020, but that dropped down to eight days last year, according to statistics from the Eau Claire City-County Health Department.
In addition to those, there are also times when algae blooms make swimming inadvisable — though not prohibited — because that can lead to sickness among people and pets. Last year there were 32 high-algae days at the beach — not the highest since the county began issuing such advisories in 2018 — but more than the 10 days where swimming was not advised due to algae in 2020.
Statistics the department has don’t appear to show a clear trend of beach closures or advisories at Lake Altoona, Steinbach said, but more like fluctuations from year to year.
Andrew Dowd, Leader-Telegram Staff