The records reached this summer in the Twin Cities won’t stick in people’s minds as joyous milestones.
Minneapolis closed a record number of beaches due to high measurements of E. coli or reports of related illness. More than 270 people got sick at Big Island in Lake Minnetonka and Lake Nokomis in Minneapolis, the largest outbreaks in decades.
And if you hated sunny weather, you were in luck: the Twin Cities recorded 31.09 inches of rain, the second highest summer total since 1892.
That apparently was part of the problem this summer. Rainwater flushes bacteria and animal waste from streets, sidewalks and yards into storm sewers, many of which empty into lakes.
Mother Nature can’t be controlled, but law enforcement officials, park boards, health departments and lake conservation districts are discussing ways to help prevent the human spread of waterborne illnesses next summer.
“Most of the city’s lakes, swimming and wading pools and water parks were open for most of the summer,” said Robin Smothers, a spokeswoman for the Minneapolis Park Board. “We can’t stop it from raining, but people can prevent waterborne illnesses by not swimming when sick or letting children in the water with leaky diapers. Common sense things.”
More than 200 partygoers became sick over the July 4th weekend wading among boats packed in Cruisers Cove off Big Island. Health experts said the source of contamination could have been anything from a boater carelessly pumping out a marine toilet to a single person with norovirus defecating or vomiting in the water.
“There can be so many causes that create an outbreak, so we are really going to delve into the issue and look at it holistically,” said Vickie Schleuning, executive director of the Lake Minnetonka Conservation District.
At Lake Nokomis in south Minneapolis, nearly 70 people showed symptoms of Shiga toxin-producing E. coli in mid-August, forcing the city to close the lake’s two beaches for the rest of the summer. It was the first time in nearly three decades that Minneapolis public beaches were closed due to illness reports rather than test results done by the city.
Epidemiologist Stephanie Gretsch with the Minnesota Department of Health called the large outbreaks at Big Island and Lake Nokomis “classic outbreaks” and said it was slightly unusual to have two such occurrences during one summer. The typical scenario consists of a lot of people swimming in a small area, which increases the opportunity for exposure, she said.
“Don’t use the lake as your bathroom,” she said. “It’s not that people are trying to be malicious, but they have to be good stewards of the beach.”
Gretsch speculated that the problem at Lake Nokomis may have been started with a regular swimmer who became sick and then returned to contaminate the beach. That may account for why it took longer for infected people to report their illness, she said.
There was some pleasant news about Big Island this summer. The city of Orono, which owns 56 acres on the island’s east side, is planning to make improvements to its nature park there. The $400,000 project will include upgrades to walking paths for people with disabilities, a restroom facility, a park pavilion and panels in the visitor’s center that interpret the island’s unique history. Work may begin this spring.
But as the beaches and pools close down after Labor Day, Schleuning and her staff with the Lake Minnetonka district will reach out to stakeholders to address the public health issue. They will discuss possibilities for public education, stiffer fines for dumping waste in lakes, more water testing and law enforcement and limiting the number of boats that gather in one place.
“It’s our mission to make sure the lakes and people are safe,” she said.
By the way, the Farmer’s Almanac predicts that Minnesota is in store for a horrible winter. Just saying.