You know what’s not fun? Showing up to a beach and finding out that the beach you planned your afternoon around is closed.
Do you know what is fun? Riding along with a water quality tester from the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board to find out why that beach was closed.
When you go to an open Minneapolis beach, you know you are swimming in safe water thanks to the water quality staff. Every week, staff tests the beach water for E. coli and Microcystin. Microcystin is the toxin that develops in cyanobacteria (the scientific term for the colloquially-known blue green algae).
Southwest Voices followed Justine Myers, a Minneapolis Parks & Recreations Water Quality Summer Support staff member, for a water quality shift at Lake Harriet and Bde Maka Ska in early August to learn about how the city's beach water is monitored.
Every Monday, Myers gets to the Parks and Rec building off of Kings Highway and 38th Street at 7 a.m. to collect water-testing gear and coolers to store the water samples. Throughout the morning Myers drives around to city lakes, collecting water samples and documenting the overall conditions of the beaches.
Weekly testing is done at all the city lakes May through Labor Day. The water is collected early Monday morning, tested in the afternoon, and the results are posted to the Park & Rec Lake Quality webpage by Tuesday mid-afternoon. Typically, the water reports are not updated again until the following Tuesday.
The first thing Myers does when arriving at each beach is immediately taking notes on the beach’s surroundings: cloud cover, wind speed and direction, prints in the sand, and air temperature. At the South Lake Harriet Beach, there is noticeable foam on the shore, which is created from plant decay in the water.
Then, Myers wades into the water at three specific locations at each beach to test the water. At each location (labeled visually as A, B, and C), Myers collects water to test for E. coli and blue-green algae. The water samples are stored in small plastic containers. The water that is collected to test for blue-green algae is put into foil-covered bottles to avoid any photosynthetic reactions. Myers also takes the water temperature at each beach.
Myers is out testing after a heavy rainfall the night before. Parks & Rec doesn’t advise anyone to be in the water 48 hours after a rainfall–especially dogs and small children, both of whom tend to put things in their mouths. Rainfalls carry things from the surrounding area in the water. The most contaminated water ends up being right at the shore.
Myers has a background in hydrogeology and geomorphology which is the study of the physical features of the earth and how those relate to geological structures. Myers still has learned a lot on the job and now knows a lot about “the quirks of our beaches and lakes.”
Swimmers and beachgoers can check the Park & Rec Lake Quality webpage for the most recent testing results and information. Users can click on specific beaches and read the exact data Myers collects, including water temperature of the results of the E. coli and blue-green algae tests. The webpage is updated every Tuesday afternoon through Sept. 6. If E. coli levels are high at a specific beach, Myers sometimes goes back out and tests again on Wednesdays to see if the E. coli levels have dropped, in hopes the beach can reopen for the weekend.
If you see a person with waders out in the water early Monday mornings, now you know who it is. Water quality testers don’t enforce any beach rules while they are out, although Myers does want everyone to be safe.
“Don’t play in the scum,” Myers said.