We studied the shoreward and seasonal distribution of E. coli and enterococci in sand (at the water table) at two southern Lake Michigan beaches—Dunbar and West Beach (in Indiana). Deep, backshore sand (∼20 m inland) was regularly sampled for 15 months during 2002–2003. E. coli counts were not significantly different in samples taken at 5-m intervals from 0–40 m inland (P=0.25). Neither E. coli nor enterococci mean counts showed any correlation or differences between the two beaches studied. In laboratory experiments, E. coli readily grew in sand supplemented with lake plankton, suggesting that in situ E. coli growth may occur when temperature and natural organic sources are adequate. Of the 114 sand enterococci isolates tested, positive species identification was obtained for only 52 (46%), with E. faecium representing the most dominant species (92%). Genetic characterization by ribotyping revealed no distinct genotypic pattern (s) for E. coli, suggesting that the sand population was rather a mixture of numerous strains (genotypes). These findings indicate that E. coli and enterococci can occur and persist for extended periods in backshore sand at the groundwater table. Although this study was limited to two beaches of southern Lake Michigan, similar findings can be expected at other temperate freshwater beaches. The long-term persistence of these bacteria, perhaps independent of pollution events, complicates their use as indicator organisms. Further, backshore sand at the water table may act as a reservoir for these bacteria and potentially for human pathogens.

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