New tools and some common sense reminders can help people find the perfect beach and stay safe and healthy while enjoying Wisconsin's lakes and rivers, say Wisconsin beach and public health officials.
"We're lucky in Wisconsin to have so many beautiful beaches to enjoy and so many people to take care of them," says Donalea Dinsmore, who coordinates the Great Lakes beach monitoring program for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
"By taking a few simple steps before you go and when you arrive, you can make sure your day at the beach is safe, fun and healthy for everyone," Dinsmore said in a statement.
Here are the top five beach tips provided by Dinsmore, Wisconsin DNR research scientist Gina LaLiberte, the statewide coordinator on blue-green algae issues, and Emmy Wollenburg, outreach specialist for the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.
- Find that perfect beach with DNR's mobile-friendly lake finder or a free beach app.
Wisconsin boasts close to 200 public beaches along Lake Michigan and Lake Superior and thousands more inland beaches at many of the state's 15,081 lakes.
New this year, DNR's online "Find a Lake" pages are now mobile device friendly and can help people find an inland beach with the amenities they want. People can search by county, by region, by lake name, or by the amenities they want, even including by the fish species they want to target when they cast a few after their swim.
For Wisconsin beaches along the Great Lakes, download a free MyBeachCast mobile app for Android. The app, offered by the Great Lakes Information Network, allows users to discover local Great Lakes beaches based on their location, save favorite beaches, and view real-time information on beach water quality advisories, weather and water conditions. New this year, the app features beach hazard statements issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration when the potential for strong and dangerous rip currents and waves is medium or high.
- Check beach conditions before you go.
Check beach water quality conditions before you go by looking at online listings of current water quality conditions at more than 100 Great Lakes beaches and more than 100 inland beaches on the Wisconsin Beach Health website, www.wibeaches.us/apex/f?p=BEACH:HOME:5971752255338611.
Local health departments and state parks on Wisconsin's Great Lakes coasts, funded in part by federal grant money administered by DNR, regularly test beach water for bacteria that can make people sick and post the results online and on signs at the beaches, Dinsmore says.
- Avoid swimming after heavy rains.
Heavy rains run off urban streets, parking lots and roads, agricultural fields, construction sites and other land uses, picking up contaminants before entering lakes and rivers and affecting water quality at beaches. Wisconsin municipalities have made great strides in the last decade in addressing sources of beach contamination by taking actions including re-engineering or removing storm water outfalls near beaches and changing their beach grooming techniques. Still, bacterial loads after heavy rains are typically higher, so another activity may be the ticket to fun on such days, Dinsmore says.
- Check what the water looks like before getting in or letting kids or pets in.
It's important for beachgoers and others enjoying the water to pay attention to what the water looks like, particularly in places where there is no monitoring, says LaLiberte.
Blue-green algae, technically known as cyanobacteria, are microscopic organisms that are naturally present in lakes, streams and ponds at low levels, she says. When conditions are favorable, usually in summer, the number of algae can increase dramatically. Some algal species produce toxins that, when ingested, can harm the neurological systems or liver of people, pets, livestock and wildlife, and can cause other health problems, LaLiberte says.
"The rule of thumb is that if you walk into the water up to your knees - being careful not to kick up the bottom sediments - and you can see your feet, the risk from algae is low to moderate," she says. "If you can't see your feet, do not let your children or dogs get into the water, and consider having the whole family pursue another activity that day."
Water quality is impaired when blue-green algae appear as scums on the surface of the water, pea-soup like discoloration, or a paint-like sheen, she says.
- Wash off after swimming and wash off your pet.
If everything checks out visually, a few more common sense tips will make the coming swim more enjoyable and safe. Don't swallow water while swimming, wash hands before eating, and wash off after swimming in any lake or pond to reduce the chance of irritation or allergenic effects, LaLiberte says.
And don't forget about pets that have been playing in the water, Wollenburg says. Rinse off pets with clean water to prevent them from ingesting blue-green algae accumulated on their fur.
"Dogs also are at risk because they may ingest algae when they groom themselves after swimming, which is why it's so important to rinse your pet with fresh clean water every time they swim in a lake, pond or river," Wollenburg says.
If a pet displays symptoms such as seizures, vomiting, or diarrhea after contact with surface water, contact a veterinarian right away.
People who think they are experiencing symptoms related to exposure to blue-green algae - stomach cramps, diarrhea, vomiting, headache, fever, muscle weakness, difficulty breathing - should contact their doctor or the Wisconsin Poison Center at 800-222-1222.
To report illnesses that may be related to blue-green algae, contact the Department of Health Services at 608-266-1120, or fill out an online survey on its website. Go to www.dhs.wisconsin.gov and search for "blue-green algae" (exit DNR).