As an avid outdoorsman who spends as much of his time on the water and in the woods as possible, Matt Steinbach’s position with the Eau Claire City-County Health Department should come as little surprise.
Steinbach joined the agency in March as environmental sciences division manger. His most public role: Helping to determine whether local beaches should be temporarily closed due to health concerns. He began his career in natural resources management, but his role shifted from biology to environmental protection.
“I never envisioned working in public health while pursuing my education or during my first few years as a professional,” said Steinbach, who was raised in southern Clark County; his wife hails from Eau Claire County. “However, I have definitely come to realize that there is a lot of uniformity between the factors that influence the health of natural resources and the health of humans.
“The transition to public health has been an exciting change for me and I feel that my education and work experience will bring some new ideas and perspective to the Health Department and the other departments and organizations that we collaborate with.”
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The department has a certified public health laboratory that consists of chemists and microbiologists, Steinbach said. Seasonal interns also assist with sampling.
“The lab currently has the capacity to complete a wide variety of tests,” he said, “but analyzing water samples accounts for a majority of the tests completed in the laboratory.”
And elevated E. coli concentrations are the main concern.
“(But) potential symptoms are not limited to only those associated with E. coli infection,” Steinbach said. “Generally speaking, ingestion of contaminated beach water is most likely to induce flu-like symptoms including diarrhea, nausea, fever and abdominal cramping.
“The onset of symptoms typically occurs a few days after exposure and may persist for several days to weeks. However symptoms can range significantly in severity and duration.”
The largest influence on surface water quality, Steinbach said, is land use. Wind also can have an impact by moving around contaminated fine sediments and water.
“E. coli can originate from many different sources, including leaching of sewage, accumulated feces from waterfowl and other animals near the water, and even the application of manure on agricultural lands elsewhere in the watershed,” he said. “Weather can also have an influence on the daily concentrations at the beaches. Precipitation events can carry new E. coli and other contaminants into surface waters through stormwater runoff.
“However, in some instances runoff may actually be clean enough to have a diluting effect.”
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The health department, according to its website, samples six public beaches each week in the summer for bacteria levels: Riverview Park, Big Falls, Half Moon Lake, Lake Altoona, Lake Eau Claire, and Coon Fork Beach and Campground. Lake Altoona beach is the only one closed this weekend.
Culprits for such closures can be blue-green algae and risks for swimmer’s itch, a rash caused by parasites usually found in birds, semi-aquatic mammals and snails.
“(Closures) occur whenever E. coli concentrations reach levels that the Environmental Protection Agency considers unsafe for swimming and other recreational activities in which there is a reasonable risk for incidental ingestion of water,” Steinbach said. “Eau Claire has an extensive beach monitoring program.”
For those of us who are of a certain age who can’t remember our local beaches shutting down over such concerns, Steinbach said monitoring began in the Great Lakes in the early 2000s and then was expanded to inland bodies of water.
As far as avoiding illness, Steinbach promotes a proactive approach.
“To remain up to date on the status of beaches in Eau Claire County,” he said, “I encourage everyone to follow the Health Department on Facebook and Twitter and to sign up for email notifications on the department’s website (tinyurl.com/yd68fgj6).”
Contact: 715-833-9215, firstname.lastname@example.org, @marlaires on Twitter