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Frequently Asked Questions

Why is there an advisory at the beach, or the beach closed?

During the summer months, monitoring staff throughout Minnesota check bacteria levels at many popular swimming and recreating beaches. They are looking for high-levels of 1 or 2 indicator bacteria called E. Coli and fecal coliform. The presence of either of these bacteria in water samples indicate the possible presence water-borne fecal contamination. This fecal contamination can make swimmers and water recreators sick. In the instance of elevated bacteria levels, staff will post a beach advisory or even close the potentially contaminated beach.

What types of illnesses can I get from swimming or recreating in contaminated water?

Swimming, playing, or recreating in contaminated water may result in minor illnesses such as sore throats, vomiting, fever, headache, sinus infections, stomach-ache and other flu-like symptoms. Other illnesses can include skin, ear, respiratory, eye, and wound infections, or more serious illnesses. Children, elderly, and people with weakened immune systems have a greater chance of getting sick when they come in contact with contaminated water.

People who experience similar symptoms after water contact are recommended to contact the local county health department, and report their condition. County staff are required to report such illnesses to the Minnesota Department of Health for further investigation.

What should I do if I went swimming and hadn’t seen the sign (or it was posted after I had been in the water)?

Take a shower and wash swimsuits and towels (and other clothing that might have gotten wet) as soon as possible. Watch for signs of illness, particularly in children who may have accidentally swallowed lake water or submerged their heads. In the instance of illness, contact your county health department.

What are E. Coli and Fecal Coliform?

The vast majority of bacteria in streams and lakes are ‘good’ bacteria. They do not cause diseases and are necessary for healthy ecosystems to function properly.

In almost all cases of water-borne illnesses the disease causing organisms, technically called pathogens or pathogenic organisms, come from the untreated waste or feces of warm-blooded animals, including humans.

Direct testing for pathogens is expensive and impractical, as pathogens are rarely found because they usually occur sporadically and mostly at low levels. Instead, public health agencies look for the presence of “indicator” species, so called because their presence indicates that fecal contamination may have occurred. The two most commonly used indicators for recreational waters are fecal coliforms and E. coli (short for Escherichia coli). These are bacteria that live in the lower intestines of warm-blooded animals, including wildlife, farm animals, pets, and humans, and are excreted in their feces. In fact, the bacteria may constitute a significant fraction of fecal waste. E. coli and fecal coliform are not usually illness causing, but their presence can indicate fecal contamination, perhaps accompanied by disease-causing pathogens.

Is the entire lake considered contaminated?

No, it’s entirely possible, and likely, that only the water where the testing took place is affected. It’s important to stay out of the water at that public recreational beach until posted signs or advisories are removed.

Is this contamination new to Minnesota’s lakes?

Not likely. Water-borne contamination has a rather short life-span and is dissipated through wave action, water currents, rain events, and the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) waves. Unfortunately similar wave conditions can also work-up fecal contamination settled on the lake or stream bottom, and rain events can wash fecal matter from the surrounding environment water bodies.

How do the bacteria get into the water?

Beach staff test for E. coli and/or fecal coliform bacteria which are found naturally in warm-blooded animals’ intestinal tracts. These bacteria are actually indicators, which if present indicate the possible presence of fecal contamination. These animals include waterfowl (geese, sea gulls, ducks, etc.), wildlife (deer, raccoons, bear, etc.), domesticated animals (horses, cows, pigs, etc.), pets (dogs, cats, etc.), and humans.

Fecal contamination can reach waterways through multiple methods, including direct deposition, stormwater runoff that carries fecal matter from inland, failing or leaking individual septic systems, sanitary sewer systems breakages and overflows, improper diaper disposal, swimmer fecal accidents, improper boat waste disposal, and much more.

What can I do to protect myself or my family?

What can I do to protect Minnesota’s beaches?

When at the Beach

When at your Home

When on your Boat