The beach on Belle Isle remains closed due to high levels of E. coli on Monday, June 5, 2023. Over the weekend, hundreds of visitors ventured into the water despite signage encouraging them not to. DNR officials say they went above and beyond to caution beach goers. (BridgeDetroit photo by Jena Brooker)

Hundreds of people were swimming at the Belle Isle beach over the weekend despite state park officials closing it down due to high levels of E. coli.

Officials with Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources said they went well above and beyond what was required to notify people of the beach closing, but as WXYZ-TV (Channel 7) reported, hundreds of people said they didn’t know the beach was closed and were swimming in the contaminated water.  

“Our responsibility is to just get that message out to folks it’s closed, which we did,” Tom Bissett, the DNR’s urban district supervisor told BridgeDetroit. 

High levels of E. coli can indicate that the water is contaminated by feces. The most common side effect of swimming in water with E. coli is acute gastrointestinal illness like diarrhea and vomiting, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Bissett said the DNR had multiple signs on Belle Isle that the beach was closed including a digital billboard at the island’s entrance, signs on both sides of the payment and information booths, and intermittently along the shoreline attached to big orange construction barrels. Bissett said state parks officials also posted on all social media accounts and sent out text message alerts. 

“We’re getting the message out there,” he said, pointing out that in one media interview  a young woman was filmed saying that she “had no idea” the beach was closed, but that the DNR beach closure sign was visible behind her.

“We did have staff members out and whenever we told people that the beach was contaminated most people were like, ‘well, that’s fine,’” Bissett told BridgeDetroit. He said the reasoning by some guests was that Belle Isle is a river so the water is always moving. 

The beach at Belle Isle was closed over the weekend due to high levels of E. coli. State officials said they took multiple measures to warn visitors. (Shutterstock photo)

Even so, Bissett said he recommends not swimming in the water until the DNR’s sampling results come back clean. 

Belle Isle’s beach closure due to E. coli isn’t abnormal. In 2017 and 2021 the beach was closed for several weeks due to high levels of the bacteria. 

When the DNR gets a bad sample back, they take additional samples and reopen the beach when the samples show a 30-day average of less than 300 ppm of E. coli. 

A DNR technician is out Monday sampling again, Bissett said. The E. coli could be coming from animals, stormwater runoff, or elsewhere, but the DNR doesn’t know the exact source, Bissett said. 

“You don’t know what the cause of this stuff is so that’s why we put those advisories – better safe than sorry,” he said. “We don’t want anybody to get sick.” 

Bissett, who formerly worked in Oakland County, said in that county it was only required that one sign be put up. Comparatively, the DNR at Belle Isle always goes “well and above that” he said. 

Because swimming in the River isn’t illegal, Bissett said the DNR can’t ticket people or remove them from the water when it’s closed. 

To stay up to date on Belle Isle’s beach closings and openings, Bissett recommended checking the DNR’s social media, and subscribing to their free text service. 

The service alerts users anytime the beach is closed for any reason, and also sends out an alert when it reopens. To sign up for the DNR’s text service, text GEM to 80888, or fill out this online form.  

Jena is a BridgeDetroit's environmental reporter, covering everything from food and agricultural to pollution to climate change.

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1 Comment

  1. Is the lack of usable bathrooms the reason for the e coli? Why is it that the first year without the grand prix, wee still don’t have full use of the island…smh

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