Escherichia coli is an important member of the gastrointestinal tract of humans and warm-blooded animals (primary habitat). In the external environment outside the host (secondary habitat), it is often considered to be only a transient member of the microbiota found in water and soil, although recent evidence suggests that some strains can persist in temperate soils and freshwater beaches. Here we quantified the population genetic structure of E. coli from a longitudinal collection of environmental strains isolated from six freshwater beaches along Lake Huron and the St. Clair River in Michigan. Multilocus enzyme electrophoresis (MLEE) and multilocus sequence typing (MLST) revealed extensive genetic diversity among 185 E. coli isolates with an average of 40 alleles per locus. Despite evidence for extensive recombination generating new alleles and genotypic diversity, several genotypes marked by distinct MLEE and MLST profiles were repeatedly recovered from separate sites at different times. A PCR-based phylogrouping technique showed that the persistent, naturalized E. coli belonged to the B1 group. These results support the hypothesis that persistent genotypes have an adaptive advantage in the secondary habitat outside the host.