LANSING - Lake Superior public waters are giving off a foul odor - at least to a dog named Sable trained to detect human sewage.
Last month, Sable picked up the smell of human waste near storm drains in several coastal parks in the Upper Peninsula; the Chippewa County public beaches consistently test high for bacteria.
"Now comes the hard part," said Christine Daley, supervisor of environmental health of the Chippewa County Health Department.
A storm drain empties into Lake Superior very near Lakeview Arena in Marquette. (Journal photo by Danielle Pemble)
Chippewa County is one of several Michigan communities looking to clean up public waters by identifying and treating problem storm drains, which flood in heavy rains and send dirty water into nearby lakes and rivers.
Local officials also recently used dogs to track human sewage in northern Michigan's Traverse Bay and Holland's Lake Macatawa.
Meanwhile, Traverse City is poised for construction on several stormwater treatment projects next year. And Michigan is inventorying sewers next to public beaches, said Shannon Briggs, a toxicologist with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.
"If we can identify the source, then we should be able to fix it," Briggs said.
In the city of Marquette, the news is more positive although officials monitor matters closely.
"We partner with the city and the state of Michigan to monitor the water quality where the outfalls go into the lake to measure the E. coli getting in," said Natasha Koss, program manager of Superior Watershed Partnership.
"The good news is that we haven't had E. coli measurements above state standards. We haven't had to close any beaches, so we're feeling good about it right now. One thing people can do is bag their dog poop."
It's a nationwide problem. Milwaukee recently discovered that 90 percent of its storm sewers contained human sewage discharged without treatment.
It will take time to determine the extent of Michigan's problem, but it's common, Briggs said. Communities built storm drains next to public beaches because they often owned that land and it was the only place to release stormwater.
The Chippewa County beaches are some of the dirtiest in Michigan; they consistently test high for E. coli - present in human feces.
"The counts are pretty alarming," Daley said.
Two busy Lake Superior beaches - Brimley State Park and Sherman Park - both have neighboring storm drains, Daley said. But there are a number of things that contribute to contamination.
Once testing turned up high levels of bacteria, the next step was to figure out if it was human, she said. Sable picked up the scent of human sewage from storm drains at Brimley State Park and Four Mile Beach.
The Watershed Center in Traverse City identified several problem storm drain systems near Bryant Park and East Bay Park beaches.
Three storm drains threatened water quality near the village of Sutton Bay.
Storm drains and public beaches are a bad combination, said Sarah U'Ren, program director of the Watershed Center which is pushing several projects that treat contamination in storm drains before it reaches the water. Among the options: smart sponges that filter out contaminants, constructed wetlands and bio-filtration systems.
"We hope to drastically reduce the amount of pollution entering the bay from stormwater," U'Ren said.
Treatments are costly. The center has roughly $1 million in federal funds to prevent overflows at Sutton Bay, $767,000 at East Bay Park and $240,000 at Bryant Park.
Solutions depend on the problem, U'Ren said. The East Bay and Bryant Projects will likely rely on "brick and concrete," while there's more room for biological solutions at Sutton Bay.
"Some parks have more surface area to work with and other parks, if they have high use, don't want to see half the park taken up for a filtration system," she said.
Construction starts in 2012.
"We hope to get the two beaches removed from the state's impaired waters list," U'Ren said.