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Yamenah Abdullah enjoys a dip at Belle Isle Beach — up to her ankles. The born-and-raised Detroiter says she knows the river well enough to distrust it.
“I’m a feet-in-the-water type of person,” Abdullah said. “I don’t dive all the way in.” Keeping one eye on her son building a sand castle, she added, “I hate to use the word ‘unsanitary,’ but…”
The weather was dreamy on a recent visit to the beach in May, but the beach was full of Detroit River skeptics. Ask if they plan to get in the water, and the first answer might be a grimace.
“I heard it’s kind of icky, wasn’t this beach closed for E. coli at one time?” said Ciara Miner.
“It’s the Detroit River,” said Jayna Wood, placing emphasis on the word “Detroit.” “It’s in the middle of the city. It’s not clean.”
“There’s Zug Island right down the street,” said Austin Kole, referencing the notorious industrial site six miles away. “It’s a little sketchy.”
Detroit haters? Not these folks. They would like nothing more than to be wrong about swimming here.
And they are wrong most of the time. Except after a heavy rain, the swimming area on the north side of the island park is a fine place to swim, as safe as any other freshwater beach in the metro area.
And while rain can wash bacteria-filled goose poop into the water, those germs don’t last long thanks to the steady current of the Detroit River, which also protects the beach from industrial pollution.
“The water in the Detroit River is very, very good,” said Jeffrey Ram, a professor at Wayne State University School of Medicine, where he focuses on molecular aquatic ecology. Ram has published research based on water tests conducted at Belle Isle, and he points out that much of our drinking water is drawn from the river at Belle Isle, where it’s purified and piped into homes.
“After a rainstorm, you might get some high levels (of bacteria) at Belle Isle Beach. But on the whole, it’s going to be clean water.”
Please don’t drown
While currents are good for water quality, they can be dangerous. The billions of gallons of water that zip past Belle Isle every hour are a threat to even the strongest swimmers.
Drowning is a risk in any body of water, and that includes Belle Isle, where drownings seem to make headlines every few years.
The beach is nestled in a cove that calms the current near the shore. Stick to that shallow area, which is marked by buoys during summer, to minimize your risk.
Do keep an eye on your loved ones: There are no lifeguards at the beach.
Pollution goes with the flow
Detroiters have a century of reasons — such as industrial dumping and environmental racism — for distrusting their river.
In this city, water and pollution too often go hand in hand. Zug Island and the oil refineries. Lead in the pipes that carry our drinking water. Sewage in the Rouge River. At the Uniroyal industrial site, a few hundred yards from the island, large deposits of arsenic, lead and cyanide on the riverbank were only recently “capped” by a seven-foot-thick barrier.
But when Detroiters swim at Belle Isle, Zug Island and Uniroyal might as well be in Utah.
That water this infamous is typically safe for swimming is a lucky byproduct of the Detroit River’s size and swift current.
From Belle Isle Beach, the water often appears still, and when the wind blows from the west, the river seems to flow backwards into Lake St. Clair. Do not be fooled. The river moves more water — faster — than all but a handful of the mightiest rivers in the United States.
At its mouth, the Detroit River pours more than two Olympic swimming pools into Lake Erie every second.
Sunbathe on the beach for an hour (without napping), and you’ll watch 1.6 billion gallons of water slide past at nearly three miles per hour.
The tremendous, unrelenting current runs from the island toward the Ambassador Bridge, acting as a barrier against pollution downstream and on the riverbanks.
When bacteria from animal droppings gets into the water, the current helps with that, too.
Even though Belle Isle Beach is protected by a cove, the water is still flushed out quickly. So quickly that if a mischief-maker dropped a bucketful of E. coli into the water at the beach, much of it would be quickly swept away by the current or die off, and the survivors would sink to the bottom and go dormant, said Lisa Reynolds Fogerty, chief science officer for the U.S. Geological Survey’s Upper Midwest Water Science Center.
Keep an eye on water tests
Michigan Poet Laureate Nandi Comer loves Belle Isle but says she wouldn’t consider swimming there.
As a kid, Comer visited the beach on regular church trips and never thought twice about swimming. As a young adult, she noticed that authorities in Windsor sometimes closed beaches on the Detroit River due to water quality issues.
“I remember thinking, ‘Why doesn’t Detroit have an alert system to let people know if the water is safe?’ It’s the same river.”
County and local officials thought the same. Nearly every year since 2005, the water has been tested for bacteria during the summer.
Rangers with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, which runs Belle Isle under an agreement with the city, wade into water at several locations around the beach to scoop up samples.
Across 11 years of testing data, average bacteria levels have been under half the amount considered safe for swimming by relatively cautious Canadian authorities.
A spokesperson for Henry Ford Health said that while the hospital has treated one case of listeria linked to swimming in the Detroit River, clinicians at the health care provider don’t typically see a rush of waterborne illnesses in the summer.
According to an emergency room physician who was not authorized to speak publicly, a handful of people contracted serious infections linked to swimming in the Detroit River, including at Belle Isle, and have sought care at Detroit Medical Center in recent years. A spokesperson for the hospital system did not return requests for comment.
Comer welcomed the news that the water is being tested but said she’s not quite ready to dive back in.
“I will likely put my feet in the water the next time I am there,” she said. “As long as it isn’t after a heavy rain.”
Do not swim after a heavy rain
Every Belle Isle Beach closure in the last 15 years followed a heavy rain.
Rain washes poop from animals (and in rare cases, from humans) into the water, and that poop contains bacteria.
Under a microscope, E. coli bacteria look like Tic Tacs you really don’t want to eat. Swimming in water with E. coli can lead to urinary tract infections, diarrhea, pneumonia, and other illnesses.
E. coli isn’t the only thing you need to worry about after a rain. Beach monitoring focuses on E. coli because it’s an “indicator species”: When it’s thriving, other problematic microbes likely are too.
Experts emphasize a single rule of thumb for safe swimming at Belle Isle: Do not get in that water after a downpour.
“I’ll tell you what I tell my kids,” said David Szlag, a professor of environmental engineering at Oakland University with expertise in beach monitoring. “If it rains more than a quarter inch, don’t swim for a day. If it rains more than a half inch, don’t swim for two days.”
Do we need to worry about human waste? Recall the summer of 2021, when record rainfalls flooded thousands of homes and turned I-94 into a lagoon. The sewer system overflowed, and cities across the region dumped hundreds of millions of gallons of sewage into local waterways.
Tests that year repeatedly found elevated levels of E. coli, and the beach was closed for most of August.
But it’s unlikely that bacteria from that sewage survived the current to get to Belle Isle Beach and was concentrated enough to cause a problem, said Shannon Briggs, a toxicologist who monitors beach water quality for the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy. (Dedicated sleuths can search this database on sewage overflows.)
A ‘considerable’ threat
Geese and gulls, not humans, are the most likely sources of bacterial contamination, according to a 2022 study that relied on extensive water sampling data from 2017 at Belle Isle Beach.
Rains heavy enough to overwhelm the sewer system are rare. Geese, along with other critters, are common, which helps explain why even less major downpours are a risk to swimmers.
To put it mildly, the Canada goose population has increased, recovering well since being listed as an endangered species 50 years ago. Today, the ornery, tuxedoed birds celebrate their evolutionary win by spending more time on Belle Isle than anyone.
“You’ve probably seen what the geese leave after they’ve spent the day there, and it’s considerable,” Briggs said.
With a heavy rain, much of that goose waste ends up in the water.
Eat the fish, but not too much
Anglers are advised to be careful about eating fish from the Detroit River. The type of fish matters because certain types of fish have feeding patterns that lead them to absorb more pollutants from the river, such as mercury.
Consult this guide before you decide what fish to each and how much of it.
Bottom line: Should I swim at Belle Isle?
On another hot afternoon in mid-May, the Detroit River skeptics were mixed with believers who did not hesitate to dunk in the 57-degree water.
The swimmers had their reasons.
River otters — which made national headlines when they were spotted last year in Detroit for the first time in forever — convinced Fatima Squirewell to trust the water.
“If they think it’s okay, I think it’s okay,” said Squirewell, a nail technician who took the afternoon off to hang out with her children by the water.
Swimming at Belle Isle is a joyful, calculated risk for Antonio Cosme, co-founder of Black to the Land, a nonprofit that helps Black and Indigenous people connect with nature.
He ticks off the environmental risks we live with already: microplastics, exhaust from cars and trucks, lead in paint and soil.
“Where is it that you’re willing to take the risk?” Cosme said. “Seems arbitrary to select the river as that point.”
“As someone with native ancestry with a deep love for what’s left of the ecosystems, I want a relationship with them. And that means swimming in the Detroit River,” he added.
That’s for each Detroiter to decide. Swimming anywhere — even a pool treated with chlorine — carries a small risk of illness and drowning. I’ve swum at Belle Isle Beach for years, but I can’t tell anyone whether that risk is worth it to them.
Just know that a swim at Belle Isle Beach is there if you need it. Hundreds of tests over a decade have shown that the water there has less bacterial contamination on average than popular beaches on Lake St. Clair, Pontiac Lake and Belleville Lake.
On a hot Detroit afternoon, when the pavement is cooking and the air weighs a ton, the water at Belle Isle offers a clean getaway.