How Clean is the Water at Local Beaches?

Beach water quality toes in the sand

That’s a question we hope you ask before heading out to the beach this summer. 

Imagine packing up the kids and the car and heading out to the beach, only to arrive and find that the beach is closed for swimming. We want to help you avoid that and maximize your fun in the sun this summer and do it safely. Here’s some things to keep in mind before your beach day:

Know before you go

We test the water quality at local beaches all summer long. If results from a particular beach shows elevated levels of bacteria or there is blue-green algae, we close the beach for swimming and update our website. So, the best thing you can do is check beach closures before you head out.

If you do check conditions and see the beach you were planning to visit is closed that day, consider rescheduling your beach day, or checking out one of the other 20+ beaches in our area. Often, when one beach is closed for swimming, others are open. You can also subscribe to get email notifications.

Swim with your eyes first

Conditions can change quickly, and a test result may not always reflect the current water quality. Always look at the water before you get in. Avoid swimming when you can see blue-green algae blooms. You might be wondering what to look for, these resources from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency gives some examples. As a general rule of thumb, signs of blue-green algae include:

  • Algae that looks blue-green, green, reddish-purple, or brown.
  • Murky looking water that has a texture similar to “pea soup”.
  • A layer of scum or puffy blobs floating on the surface.
  • A strong musty odor near the water.
Water testing and beach monitoring

If you do see what you believe is blue-green algae, let us know! Send us an email with a photo and we can determine if it is a blue-green algae bloom and close the beach for swimming right away.

Keep in mind, lake water can also contain things you can’t see, that could make you sick. Things like bacteria, viruses, or parasites. Testing for all the possible germs would be costly, so we test for E. coli bacteria in the water because it’s the best indicator there are germs in the water.

If you have been in the water with blue-green algae…

Exposure to blue-green algae can lead to skin irritation, gastrointestinal issues, and other more severe health problems. It’s possible you may have already been swimming before you noticed a suspicious algae bloom nearby. If so, there are things you can do to protect yourself

This content is free for use with credit to Public Health Madison & Dane County .

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