Great Lakes Beach, Tributary, and Nearshore Water Quality

Hydrologic and Hydrodynamic Data and Model Assimilation

Part of J.P. the Smithe's Webpage Portfolio

Background Information:

The Importance of nearshore Waters

Nearshore waters are a critical component of coastal watersheds. It is the place which the terrestrial watershed directly interacts with the lake (or ocean). Nearshore water is typically defined to extend from the shoreline offshore to the depth at which the thermocline rests on the bottom of the lake in late summer/early fall (i.e. the depth at which the water warms clear through to the lake bottom; approx 20-30meters depth).

Nearshore water provides unique habitat for both plants and animals such as sea grasses and shellfish. In addition, nearshore waters in the Great Lakes (as well as other regions) provide an opportunity for popular recreational activities such as swimming, boating, and fishing take place.

Recreational Water Quality Regulation: Federal Guidance and State Standards

To ensure that people are not being exposed to unsafe water while enjoying nearshore recreation, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has established recommended recreational water quality criteria based on fecal indicator bacteria (FIB) in order to provide a basis for individual states to establish their own standards. The EPA guidelines are intended to protect swimmers, divers, and surfers from pathogen associated illness.

For details regarding the EPA recreational water quality criteria and state specific standards please refer to the following documents:
The data collected for this project are intended for research purposes only and are not used for regulatory compliance (i.e. beach advisories and closures). In Michigan, the public health department of each county conducts routine beach water quality monitoring to assess compliance with the standards. The Michigan BeachGuard System is a public resource maintained by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) that provides the water quality results collected by the county well as a list of current beach closures and advisories in Michigan.

Fecal Indicator Bacteria (FIB)

Fecal indicator bacteria (FIB) are bacteria such as E. coli and Entercoccus, which live in the gut of warm blooded animals and are introduced into the environment through fecal matter. Most FIB are harmless to humans. Why are water quality standards, which are in place to protect against illness, then based on FIB? Why aren't regulators testing for illness causing pathogens? As science advances it may become more feasible to analyze water samples for pathogens however doing so is currently very costly, time consuming, and requires personnel who are highly trained. Epidemiological studies have shown that FIB can serve as an indicator that harmful pathogens are likely to be present. Unlike for pathogens, simple, time and cost effective methods are available for FIB analysis.

About the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative

In 2009 President Obama proposed the Great lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) which Congress then approved in 2010 investing $425 million towards addressing the following 5 focus areas in the Great Lakes:
  • Toxic Substances and Areas of Concern
  • Invasive Species
  • Nearshore health and nonpoint source pollution
  • Habitat and wildlife protection and restoration
  • Accountability, education, monitoring, evaluation, communication, and partnerships

In order to operationalize these good intentions, an action plan was developed identifying goals, objectives, measureable targets, and defining specific actions.

The focus area this project invests in is, "Nearshore Health and Nonpoint Source Pollution". Goals for this focus area, as defined in the action plan, include those below. This project's efforts are relevant to all goals, but are specifically focused on addressing goal #4.
  1. Nearshore aquatic communities consist of healthy, self-sustaining plant and animal populations dominated by native and naturalized species.
  2. Land use, recreation, and economic activities managed to ensure that nearshore aquatic, wetland, and upland habitats will sustain the health and function of natural communities.
  3. The presence of bacteria, viruses, pathogens, nuisance growths of plants or animals, objectionable taste or odors, or other risks to human health are reduced to levels in which water quality standards are met and beneficial uses attained to protect human use and enjoyment of the nearshore areas.
  4. High quality bathing beach opportunities are maintained by eliminating impairments from bacterial, algal, and chemical contamination; effective monitoring for pathogens; effective modeling of environmental conditions, where appropriate,; and timely communication to the public about beach health and daily swimming conditions.
  5. A significant reduction in soil erosion and the loading of sediments, nutrients, and pollutants into tributaries is achieved through greater implementation of practices that conserve soil and slow overland flow in agriculture, forestry, and urban areas.
  6. High quality, timely, and relevant information about the nearshore areas is readily available to assess progress and to inform enlightened decision making.

For more information about the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative please visit their website at
Go to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's home page Go to the Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab home page Go to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative home page Go to the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research home page