Park Board to close three Southwest beaches this summer

One each at Harriet, Calhoun and Cedar will not open

Park officials have announced they will close three Southwest-area beaches this year: Lake Harriet's Southeast Beach, Lake Calhoun's 32nd Street Beach and Cedar Point on Cedar Lake's northwest side.

Four Southwest beaches will remain open: Lake Harriet Main, Lake Calhoun Main, Lake Calhoun Thomas and Cedar Lake's Main Beach.

The Park Board will remove the ropes and lifeguard towers from the four closed beaches and stop milfoil harvesting in those areas, said Michael Schmidt, assistant superintendent for operations and maintenance. "They will become another piece of the natural shoreline."

The Park Board closed Harriet's Southeast Beach and Calhoun's 32nd Street beach last year as a temporary response to budget cuts. It cut Cedar Main last year because Cedar Point had better parking. It switched this year despite Cedar Main's parking deficiencies because it had more visibility and was a better beach than Cedar Point, Schmidt said.

Commissioner Vivian Mason represents the area and supports the change. Cedar Main "is the one most of my constituents used," she said.

Commissioner Rochelle Berry Graves said she was concerned about closing Lake Calhoun's 32nd Street Beach because so many young children used it. It is near a tot lot.

Schmidt said staff wanted to keep Calhoun's Main and Thomas beaches open because they are the most heavily used beaches in the system. Staff did not think it was fair to keep all three Calhoun beaches open and leave some lakes with no beaches.

The Park Board will operate the Nokomis Main Beach instead of Hiawatha Beach this year in part because of water-quality concerns at Hiawatha.

The Park Board also is modifying its 2004 water-quality-testing program.

Until 2003, the city's Environmental Health Department monitored city beach water quality for fecal coliform, bacteria present in human and animal waste, according to a Feb. 18 Park Board memo. The city would close a beach only if it documented a case of waterborne illness.

Based on that criterion, the city never closed a beach.

However, the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has pushed coastal states to use e. coli, a type of bacteria, as a better health risk measure than fecal coliform. (Because Minnesota borders Lake Superior, it is considered a coastal state.)

Park Board officials say they expect Minnesota to adopt EPA standards statewide in 2005, but the Park Board has already started using them.

The Park Board's Environmental Operations Division took over beach monitoring in June. Four times a week, staff sampled each beach for both fecal coliform and e. coli.

Based on the federal standard, the Park Board closed beaches on three separate occasions last year -- Lake Harriet Main once and Hiawatha twice.

Sara Aplikowski, the Park Board's water resources coordinator, said last year's beach closings led some residents to think that water quality was getting worse -- but most beaches had improved.

"Really, it was just the new policy and guidelines that changed," she said.

Most beaches showed improvement based on the fecal coliform numbers, she said. The city and Park Board had never tested for e. coli before, and had no comparisons.

The Park Board will discontinue fecal coliform tests and focus on e. coli, Aplikowski said. In 2004, it will test all 11 beaches -- including less-frequent tests at the four closed beaches.

"I think there is hope that beaches may reopen in future years," she said. "This way, we would have some baseline data of the water quality at those beaches."

The Park Board will begin a new phone line and Web link to inform the public of temporary beach closings.