Swimming bans at our beaches- any solutions? hopeless? no problem?

This page is presented by Jackson Park Advisory Council and also by the Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference website hydepark.org. Written by Gary Ossewaarde
Page contents

Beach alerts, open or closed: http://www.cpdbeaches.com. Pages for each beach - interactive maps and weather updated each hour.

2018 update

OUR WATERS and Beaches. By Gary Ossewaarde
SAILING CLASS practicing maneuvers, survival and rescues. This is a joint endeavor of the park district, outer harbor yacht clubs and others, encouraged by JPAC, which steered several school youth toward scholarship admission. JPAC treasurer Dwight Powell, along with vice president Anne Marie Miles (also an officer in the Jackson Park Yacht Club) and the club commodores have been especially diligent in encouraging the program locally, which grows from an endowed program. Youth must have passed the Red Cross test of swimming/ ability to float safely in order to enroll in sailing. Swimming classes occur year round at park district facilities including locally Don Nash Center and in the summer at Washington Park.

AND... NOT SO GOOD NEWS ABOUT BEACH SAFETY. Media reporting on swimming deaths and rescues reveals an apparent thinness in summer beach protection. Monitoring and concerns about various beach conditions has had the attention of JPAC since its founding.
The physical presence of lifeguards is critical both when people are in trouble in the water (including situations that need marshaling and direction of rescue personnel) and also in general to monitor conditions and beachgoers and warn or forbid entry during unsafe conditions, whether due to weather, currents, or rough-water, or for high e-coli and pathogen presence. Lifeguard hours at Chicago beaches have been seriously reduced for the past 9 years, starting as late as 11 a.m. and generally ending at 7 p.m. rather than 9 to 8:30. In response to media reports and JPAC inquiries, lifeguards at 57th St. Beach may now start at 10 a.m. rather than 11, but so far CPD is in general holding to 11 to 7. Some advocates and media say hours should run from daylight (which at midsummer can be as early as the 6 a.m. time the parks open) to dusk or at least the old time of 8:30 or to when beaches close at 9 p.m. Swimming is currently supposed to end at 7 p.m., but 5 beachgoers and swimmers are often still present (as they are in the morning well before 11. There is an online petition by Halle Quezada of Rogers Park for longer hours and other changes. Perhaps the allowable swimming season is too short given climate change.

Also, there have also been incidents at 57th St. at least when colored warning flags (“red” means no swimming even if the fine-print policy is "at one's own risk") and signage have at least temporarily disappeared, may not be seen, or the meaning is unclear. Many people do not know of or think in the moment or have internet access to check daily updates in www.chicagoparkdistrict.com or http://www.cpdbeaches.com.

The park district has changed the flag policy to leave the red “don’t swim” flags visible from when lifeguards leave until they are on duty again in the morning. Signs have been installed on the lifeguard perches saying there is swimming only when guards are on duty. More educational materials will be available including to schools. Is this sufficient? Perhaps the budget needs to be increased and or new steps taken.
Indications that the wave or underwater action may be unsafe may (but don't necessarily) include one or more paths of debris into the water, whitecaps, or sandy stirred up water. If caught in a riptide, try floating until you have caught your breath then swim parallel to the beach until you're out of the riptide. Life guards are trained well-- a regional training center is at Rainbow. This is a good opportunity for youth. Still, youth and adult education in safe use of the water is crucial.
By the way, our beaches are vulnerable. During a recent high wind, wave and current episode much of the 57th St. Beach temporarily disappeared. There has been a severe loss of natural sand transport along the shoreline necessary for beach replenishment, and we are in a high lake level phase (partly due, allegedly, to opening gates to drain also-high Lake Superior). Some other areas such as along the La Rabida peninsula and south of the park the washing away of mostly-wooden breakwaters over the years may be a contributing factor--the lake wants the land back, thank you. We have asked and the park is inquiring of the Army Corps what are the facts and what can be done at what cost. There appears also to be problems with placement of the main breakwater at the Outer Harbor-- suggested changes are in the South Lakefront Plan. We are grateful that the park district now employs a fast, closer-to-real-time assessment of unhealthy water at beaches, but the public is allowed to enter the water at its own risk and the warning mechanisms may be weak. All of these factors affect beach safety and enjoyment as well as the physical integrity of what Olmsted called our greatest asset, the lake and its shore.

And a shout out to the 57th St. lifeguards. Noted by Kenneth Newman and Gary Ossewaarde, on Sunday July 15 a bad accident on southbound Lake Shore Drive at about 5800, SE of the museum, as Newman observed, "resulted in some excellent lifesaving work by some of the 57th Street beach lifeguards, as well as those who witnessed the accident, who came across Lake Shore Drive and rendered aid to injured car passengers for quite a while, even after firefighters and ambulance crews arrived on scene... Great to see some CPD employees put their lifesaving skills to work in an extreme emergency situation."

cember 27 2016 tribune carried a feature on Loyola University study of the loads of garbage picked up and sorted at beach sweeps. Despite a Chicago ban on smoking on beaches, 42% of the trash is cigarette butts and filters. (Ed.- since the beaches are repeatedly raked and turned over, the amount of cigarette trash must be increasing at depths washed by the water table.) butts have limited biodegradability and are shown to release chemicals over time. There has been decline in that debris, corresponding to drops in smoking, but is it absolute, because of the bans, or is smoking more (or less) likely on beaches? On the North Shore, the largest part of trash is food debris. Trash overall does attract gulls, which magnify the litter and health problems. What does the relatively less smoking debris there say, and what does the food debris say about affluence or habits? One strategy in Chicago (city plus private groups) is trash receptacles with "vote with your butt" like for hot dogs vs. pizza for example. And in Waukegan, Beach Rangers pass out garbage bags, talk to people, and empty receptacles. Another finding is that the summer grooming's by park districts do reduce the actual amount of litter, vs. that present during the other seasons.

Park District website or 312 74BEACH (742-3224), Facebook/Twitter @chicagopark.
or Text 312 715-swim text the word beaches and text in the name of your beach.
Or call 312 74-beach or visit http://www.chicagoparkdistrict.com or its Facebook and Twitter links. Remember the season starts the Friday before Memorial Day and ends the day after Labor Day.

May 19 2015. As reported in the May 20 Chicago Sun-Times (spokesperson Cathy Breitenbach, Director of Natural Resources), the Chicago Park District this year is using the "fast-test" UIC pilot project at 5 Chicago beaches-- Calumet, Rainbow, South Shore, 63rd, 57th, and Montrose. In this method, samples are taken c. 8 am, sent to UIC lab where counts DNA fragments of indicator E. coli bacteria are taken, and the results reported in early afternoon rather than the next morning, as when is the case when whole cells are counted. The old method will continue to be used also, as at all the Chicago Beaches. 235 remains the count threshold for swim warnings. Swim bans are only issued when there is a special condition such as storms or flushing of sewage into the Lake. The warnings, as will storm/rip tide conditions are via flags (red indicating closed), messages at the beaches, and online including at the CPD website. Various pro-active measures are taken to discourage sources of pathogens, including using dogs and other means of dispersing gulls on various beaches, and discouraging unsanitary human practices.

July 2014. Beach pollution and swim bans-- progress has been made in recent years with Chicago beaches but Park District, scientists continue to study varied causes and seek more progress.

July 2014. Heavy rain this summer brought a mixed blessing: the rise in water level have perhaps helped alleviate problems at the notoriously shallow 63rd beach and jackson Park harbors, but the necessity of diverting stormwater into Lake Michigan after torrential downpours resulted in some swim bans and the general problem of wash-off of farm fertilizer and other toxins or pollutants into streams or from shore area into the Lake(s) continues to abet the degradation of the lakes.

The July 18 2014 Chicago Tribune carried a story on the present direction of the Park District on curbing beach pollution and swim bans. The US Geological Survey Great Lakes Station which employs Richard Whitman who did a study of the 63rd St. beach several years ago. The USGS is testing for contribution of dogs' DNA to the pollution and counts at Montrose, 63rd, Rainbow, and Calumet beaches. At beaches such as 63rd, use of border collies to clear off gulls was credited with a good deal of the improvement over the past few years. But this hasn't worked at Montrose, which remains among the most troubled of Illinois beaches according to the Natural Resources Defense Fund. Montrose has a dog beach, so it has been suggested that those dogs are countering any progress due to driving off gulls-- but Foster Beach also has a dog beach but no problem. Although Chicago, indeed Illinois beaches certainly not among the worst or most often closed on Lake Michigan and have seen much progress, the Park District would like to see more progress. [See sections below on changes in measuring and standards in recent years which partially cloud the matter; and as the article points out there are many factors contributing to lake and beach pollution, subject to changes over time, especially with our fluctuating water levels. A new factor the NRDF says might be helping at 63rd St . is the natural vegetation installed between the parking lot and beach in 2012.- GMO.] While answers are sought, Cathy Breitenbach of the CPD reminds that people can do their part by not leaving contaminants or food for birds, dogs et al on beach and upstream or in the water.

A wake up call about the Great Lakes in general was given by the shutdown of water intake at Toledo in July 2014 due to a toxic algae bloom. A Sun-Times article August 5 noted algae blooms in Green Bay and swabs of algae washing up onto shores especially in Wisconsin and Michigan, possibly related to the problems caused by zebra and quagga mussels and agricultural practice changes to reduce runoff by laying-fallow no-til and by laying phosphorus based fertilizers on the soil (rather than mixing in) in winter rather than spring, as well as a pattern of heavier rains. This has negated the banning of phosphorus in detergents et al. However,as other articles point out, Lake Michigan is much cooler and deeper than Lake Erie and is unlikely to suffer such serious blooms- and the farm runoff is much less into Lake Michigan. Farmers could also let lands on stream and shore banks lay fallow and homeowners could use no-phosphorus fertilizers and rain barrels. Note that millions are spent yearly to keep municipal and industrial water intakes clear of mussels and algae, and that mussel beds cover almost the whole lake bottom and are at least dozens of feet thick in many places- and growing, leaving behind the rot of those that have died.
There seems to be some disagreement as to how much open, untreated overflow and sewer drains, and parking lot wash ,to streams or the Lake still contribute to lake problems. There is certainly the opening of flood gates during heavy downpours and industrial pollution including from Northwest Indiana-- and petcoal along the Calumet? And indiscriminate disposal of pharmaceuticals, antibiotics, and things that should be sequestered or recycled rather than sent to landfill or streams. A key step will be whether the Congress passes re-appropriation of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

May 2013

The following is based on the May 25, 2013 Tribune, Jennifer Delgado, pages 1 and 2-- "A swelling shoreline- Low Lake Michigan means bigger beaches by hardships for boaters" and "Water quality to be tested at all city beaches."

The first describes the state and history of the water levels and the consequences for the various harbors and dissatisfaction expressed by boaters re Jackson and 59th harbors (hit hardest) about dredging- and being by encouragement or necessity pushed to 31st harbor. (63rd's problems are made worse by the low level encouraging storms to wash sand across the openings and starting bars in the navigation path in the Lake.) Reasons are given why the general water level situation will at best slowly improve in future years, and may not improve much long term. The article notes that that the Park District is considering need for a breakwater to slow silting of 63rd harbor. The low levels are not an unmitigated boon for beaches either.

Historic Jackson Outer Harbor has considerably fewer boats in the harbor this year because low water level and sand pileup prevents getting them in, or makes people either hold off or move to deeper harbors. This spring's storms have raised the level from January's post-drought low some but did more harm than good by pushing more sand to the water's edge and in front of inlets. Marinas at the southern end of the lake were affected the most, notably 59th and Jackson Outer which always have a problem with drifting sand, made worse by conditions of the past 2 years.

The Lake's levels had peaks of 1.5-nearly 3 feet higher that the norm about 1920, 1956, the last 1960s to 1983 (historically high about 1986), and in the late 1990s. Lows at 1.7-3.5 occurred in the mid 1920s, the 1930s and early 1940s, and starting in 1999 when an Army Corp expert says we shifted to dry conditions spiked by a 1999-2000 winter with little snow in the basin. The lake has not recovered from the latter depths, an unprecedented stretch of 14 years, a combination of milder winters (including less lake ice that would hinder evaporation), drier springs, and more evaporation generally- partly from more wind and average drier air. The 2011-2012 "hot" and doughty winter through summer and high evaporation in the hot season caused an historic (since 1918) plunge to -2.56 feet below average, 576.02 feet in January 2013 before levels started rising (seasonally and due to abnormal rains) to rise 13 inches in May stand at 22 inches below norm. It may rise another 5 inches by late summer, but that's not much. The problem is compounded by large concrete blocks on the lake bottom and this and sand along the walls.

Beaches on average are larger due to the drop, compounded by more than average sand drift, but there is concern about whether this brings more contamination and pathogens.

Harbor entry dredging was done 2 weeks in May at Jackson Park Outer. Some boaters say that dredging has been put off or minimalized in recent years while th district built a large new . This year's problems have increased what has been an annual problem (and deposition of dredging was accused in one previous instance of contaminating the beach). The overseer from contractor Westrec is quoted "We're exploring options for long-term solutions, like building a breakwater out into the lake tha would prevent sand from coming into the harbor and make it unnecessary to dredge every year."

Water to be tested at all city beaches

The other article, by Jennifer Delgado,m says that the PD has committed to applying the real-time prediction and better posting to the public at all beaches and in future years (even after the pilot grant of 2010 runs out) while also continuing the traditional test-and-and grow in petrie dishes confirmation method. Now we will have to watch the appropriateness of closures and for best measures to reduce the contamination in the first place and barriers to good circulation.

The real-time EPA-funded pilot project started in 2010 at 15 beaches will now be extended to all 24 beaches. Results are posted on the new website (see at top) and on whiteboards at the beaches, according to Cathy Breitenbach. basically, this is a predictive modeling approach based on weather conditions that is accurate 80-90% of the time. Data is gathered by orange buoys and weather stations on poles, installed in 2011. Measurements made hourly include rainfall, wave action, and turbidity. These ares sent to a computer. The water will still be tested daily (see articles below) for e-coli (the canary-in-the-tunnel) but it takes a day to grow the samples, so it's really an after-the-fact check that if left alone could lead to unnecessary swim bans or be much too late. There is apparently no change in whether beaches are closed or people are just advised to exercise caution. The storms of April 2013 led to several episodes of sending sewer water into the lake, but this was before the swimming season.

November 26 2012 the EPA announced that there will be two sets of recommended standards for e coli etc.- one is that of 1986 and another someone tougher based on more recent study. The old guidelines estimated 36 illnesses per 1000 (exposed?) to that level, the new 32. Also recommended was more frequent testing. Monitor groups are not enthusiastic about multiple standards or about how much difference this will make.

Based on the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times stories of May 24 and 25 2012 and earlier information:

Chicago Park District announced in late May 2012 that this year it will abandon e coli testing to determine when to issue swim bans and advisories if federal standards are exceeded-- although such advisories will still be issued (via a yellow flag by the whiteboard posting), but lifeguards will not halt swimming and wading unless actual conditions such as storm release of sewerage into waterways indicate that swimming should be banned. Buoys will measure the modeling parameters at 16 of the 24 beaches - grants are being sought to extend this to all beaches by next year. Some parameters in the model (developed by among others Richard Whitman of the Great Lakes USGA center and based partly on Lake County experience), are sources of contamination known to affect those beaches, such as gull colonies and sewer outflows, wave motion disturbing bacteria growing in sands, current speeds, water temperatures, and sunlight amounts and determinants. Not included is the fast-test method employed by Wilmette. Karen Hobbs of The National Resources Defense Council (which has sued some government units in California on testing and standards) says Chicago is moving in the right direction and is in the middle o the pack on what's being done in the Great Lakes-- her main concern is with leaving it entirely up to swimmers reading the posted info to decide whether to go into the water.

Some express concern that people will not know what to make of the numbers posted on the whiteboards at the beaches-- will they overreact if the previous day's count was high? What if the predictive models from computer software under or over predict? Announcement of the new policy was made by Cathy Brietenbach, CPD director of lakefront operations. In 2011 there were 36 closures and 134 additional advisories. Jackson Park Advisory Council, along with the PD, has long been concerned about the effectiveness of advisories and bans (JPAC especially after the standards were changed from the EPA recommendation) and also seeks effective actions to ensure clean water and beaches.


On September 6, 2011 the Tribune reported there were fewer closures than in the previous five years for city and Lake County beaches, but did not give specifics on 63rd. Some was ascribed to dry spells punctuated by heavy rains, some (by the Park district) to measures to discourage gulls, increasing dune vegetation, and talking to beachgoers.

In autumn, 2010 Dr. Richard Whitman, was referenced in the May 28 Tribune article cited below.

In 2009 the city tested at 63rd SwimCast, a quick method to quickly determine if beaches need to be closed. It has been about 80 percent accurate in Lake County. 63rd does not have the most frequent closures now- Montrose, 31st and Rainbow lead the pack. Meanwhile, to save money lifeguard hours have been cut at Chicago beaches from 8:30 am-9 pm to 11 am-7 pm. CPD says few swim during the cut hours.
On May 20 2010 a current flow test was done and an examination scheduled of the cuts made in the pier (to increase circulation, some years ago).

The local beaches did not experience any closures or swim bans in 2008. This could be a fluke due, for example to water, or due to a number of proactive measures such as "Wild Goose Chase" (which uses dogs), AND ESPECIALLY THE CHANGE IN THE STANDARDS FOR CLOSURES.

Jackson Park Council discussed the issues with Holiday Wirick of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Justin De Witt from the Illinois Department of Public Health Beach division March 12, 2007. See below. 63rd beach watershed is one of two Illinois sites fully studied under a grant--all outflow sources. [A victory for all working together: BP backs down on increased Lake dump.] A new predictive model is also being used.

Jackson Park/JPAC home. The Gunderboom plan. page includes diverse views from the early 21st century on lake pollution, swimming bans.
The Whitman Report on 63rd St. beach
(Dec. 3, 2001) page contains the executive summary from a government funded study of this complex issue.

Visit EPA site, www.epa.gov/beaches/,Great Lakes Beachwatch Listserve. Centers for Disease Control site, US Geological Survey, Illinois Department of Natural Resources (which is not however resp. for Lake Mich. beaches), Chicago Department of Environment, Alliance for the Great Lakes and Great Lakes Aquatic Network and Fund. Current swimming bans are posted in the Chicago Park District site (in season).
A good source on beach issues is www.cdc.gov (Centers for Disease Control).

Here (page index):

Swim bans. 2011 perspective based on 2010 experience

(start, as in July 2011 Newsletter)

By Gary Ossewaarde
The June 30, 2011 Chicago Sun-Times discussed a report issued by the Natural Resources Defense Council, “Testing the Waters 2011.” Both in terms of bacterial testing and swim bans, the Great Lakes scored significantly worse than the east or west coast, and Illinois scored 26th of 31 states with major shores. In terms of percentage of time bacteria exceeded state standards in 2010, four North Shore beaches (highest one 61% of the time) did worse than any in Chicago. Three on the South Side had the highest Chicago percentage of exceeding standards—South Shore (30%), Rainbow (24), Calumet (22), followed by Montrose, 31st, and 63rd all at about 21% of the time.
Because Chicago raised the bacterial count threshold for closures and the North Shore did not, it is hard to make comparisons between those areas. Still, a few years ago 63rd St. Beach was consistently among the worst in counts and closures in Chicago. Modest configuration changes were made on the 63rd pier (anecdotally considered as insufficient to make a big difference) and some preventive measures undertaken, such as dogs on the beach to harry gulls, and more sophisticated ways to measure and predict water quality. The role is unclear for disease-bearing microbes washed into the lake by direct runoff and especially through untreated drainage pipes, heavy storm water diverted into the Lake, or microbes making sand their home. Still, It might help if we all adopted more care when we go to the beach and into the water. To find out if you can go into the water today, go to the Park District website, but recognize that decisions for swim bans can lag considerable from onset of weather and other adverse events.

2009: 63rd beach had the worst record, 57th came in 4th in Chicago-- and high despite changed (2006) standard.

By far the worst pollution was at North Point Marina Beach just over the Wisconsin border--44 closings in 2009; next was Illinois Beach at 25.
Then 63rd St. Beach- 18, worst in Chicago. This was followed over all by Waukegan at 15 and Nunn Beach at 14.
2nd worst in Chicago was 57th St. at 11. Others on the South Side: Calumet 8, Rainbow 7, South Shore 1, 39th 2, 31st 1, 12th 3.
No other of Chicago's 31 beaches exceeded 3. 13 North Shore beaches in addition to North Point, Illinois Beach and Waukegan exceeded 3 and only 4 did not.



Will we have just bans and warnings or real solutions as evidence accumulates that the Lake is dying?.

Lake bottoms that were deserts are now (2008) shown to have vast gardens of algae and mussels, full of strains of e-coli and botulism spores. Huge mats of the algae regularly wash up on the shores. Are these killing migratory birds, starving fish, contributing to beach closures? The various mussel species (esp. zebra and quagga) now filter the lake so fast the sun penetrates far deeper. And there are the gobies. The changes are accelerating and may be faster than the ecology can adapt to it. Then stir in warming and reduced winter ice. Decreasing nutrients, rising temperatures and more mussels.

But the Sun-Times said in July that the water and trash on Chicago's beaches is getting better. Are border collies chasing gulls and geese improving or hurting the situation? Rated best in the article were 1 North Avenue, 2 South Shore, 3 Leone, 4 Oak, 5 63rd.

Prelude: An increased number of swimming bans at 63rd St. beach due to high bacteria readings became noticeable about 1999. The park district and city agencies took many steps and considered numerous ideas then and in following years, and funded expert studies. They also sought to improve testing and public notification of bans. Although much was learned, progress was hit and miss. City Council held hearings also.

In July 2007, Reps. Kirk and Lipinski introduced a bill that would provide a fund to clean up spot sources of sewage (especially municipal) and quadruples th fine on cities dumping sewage into the Great Lakes.

In 2005 a new fast-test for beach water pollution and closure was tested at 63rd and North Avenue--the city liked the results, but plans are not clear as to whether the district will be using this or some other testing. The Park District may be asked by EPA to be do a test-of-model, perhaps with BEACH Act grants. Meanwhile, EPA has at least two newer fast (almost real time) tests coming up the pipeline for testing.

In 2006, the Park District adopted a new standard trigger for swim bans and new ways to notify the public when bacterial levels are between the traditional EPA standard of 235 cfu (coliforming units per milliliter) to the new 1,000 standard. JPAC has been seeking information because it believes, as expressed in resolution in summer 2006, that there is a potential of public danger. This page deals with our information and concerns and what others have to say.

Government experts are scheduled to visit the February 12, 2007 JPAC meeting to inform the council.


Suit filed against feds, EPA on swim bans and advisories summer 2006

August 10 2006 via AOL:

Group Sues EPA Over Beach Pollution
Releases List of Dirtiest and Cleanest Beaches

LOS ANGELES (Aug. 4) - An environmental group has sued federal regulators, charging that they failed to protect beaches and the Great Lakes from pollution and that negligence by the Bush administration exposed swimmers and surfers to potential illnesses.

The lawsuit, filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council in U.S. District Court on Thursday, charged that the Environmental Protection Agency failed to protect the public against the "substantial adverse health effects" from contact with contaminated beach water.

In 2000, Congress passed a law requiring the EPA to update its beach-water health standards by 2005. The agency missed the deadline and current standards are two decades old, according to court documents.

The lawsuit was filed on the same day the group issued a report that found beach closings due to hazardous bacterial contamination in Los Angeles County jumped 50 percent in 2005. Across the nation, beaches were closed or posted with health advisories 20,000 times last year, the report said.

EPA spokesman Dale Kemery did not address the lawsuit, but said in a statement "the state of the nation's beach health remains high, even as the number of beaches monitored increased by 11 percent in 2005."

The agency "has made significant progress in carrying out its responsibilities under the" 2000 law, he said.

The lawsuit asks the court to order the agency to complete the water-quality studies and publish revised safety rules.

The pollution comes from a wide mix of sources, including animal waste, factories, septic tanks, sewage, pesticides and oil and metals deposited on city streets.

Tribune May 28 201o feature: High-Tech Beach Battle, New arsenal aims to forecast and fight a cause of summertime blues: bacteria

[Note: Jackson Park Advisory Council has registered its concerns that apples and oranges may be being compared since the change of standards for swim bands, that such important contributors to pollution as dog and human waste and the cultivation of bacteria in sand may be under considered in favor of avian contribution (although the beaches are being overturned/raked), and that some solutions such as driving off birds with collie dogs may add as much to the problem as it helps. JPAC also reminds that bacteria are indicators of likely presence of the more serious pathogens, whose presence (as well as sand ecology) are not well understood.
The May 20 2010 current study and check of the undercutting's under the pier as well as other major tests such as modeling this year may reveal new remedies.]

By Joel Hood

So much for the old warning flag on a stick.

Confronting an almost unwinnable battle against E. coli and other bacteria on public beaches, Chicago and some of its suburbs have take the fight into the digital age.

From computer models that can predict conditions where bacteria will thrive, to swimming alerts and beach closures sent out via Twitter, Facebook and text message, officials have adopted high-tech strategies to better inform beachgoers of unhealthy conditions. "That's how people live no," said Cathy Breitenbach, manager of the Chicago Park District's Office of Green Initiatives. "People have an expectation today to get information quickly and in multiple ways. We're doing our best to meet that expectation."

As thousands across Chicago and the suburbs hit the beach this Memorial Day weekend, health officials warn of the dangers lurking out of sight. The popular beaches that line the lakefront in Chicago and communities to the north have long been a melting pot for E. coli and other harmful bacteria. Stormwater runoff, pet waste, bird droppings and urban trash contribute to microscopic mountains of filth that can lead to sore throats, stomach aches and all kinds of ailments.

The number of swimming bans has increased in recent years, officials say, likely due to more frequent testing for bacteria than an actual drop-off in water quality. Twice a day, researchers walk the city's 31 beaches collecting water samples in small plastic tubes and sending them to a lab for analysis.

The trouble with that method of water sampling is that results aren't known until the next day. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Geological Survey are pioneering research off Chicago's beaches, using DNA analysis to to test for bacteria, that will one day shorten the lab work to a couple of hours, allowing for almost instantaneous water monitoring, said Richard Whitman, a USGS ecologist. "The results we've been living with are yesterday's numbers, and that's not always good enough," Whitman said. "We know water conditions can change pretty quickly."

This month, Whitman and other scientists dumped red dye into the water a half-mile off 63rd Street Beach, one of the most problematic waterfronts in the city, to track the speed and direction of lake currents in the hopes of better understanding how bacteria builds up along the shoreline.

Thanks to EPA funding, the scientists have developed computer models that can calculate weather data, wave height, wind direction, rainfall and other measurements to project when and where bacteria counts will rise to unsafe levels. This software, launched in Lake County in 2005, has revolutionized beach research. Instead of having to wait 18 or 20 hours to issue a swimming alert to beachgoers, predictive modeling can anticipate unsafe swimming conditions.

"It's keeping people out of the water when they should be, and not a day after the testing is done," said Mike Adam, a senior biologist for Lake County, which oversees 15 public beaches along the lakefront and several dozen inland beaches. "E. Coli levels can change dramatically just between morning and afternoon tests. Imagine how much they change a day later."

Officials in Chicago and Evanston are now compiling data that will enable them to use predictive modeling in a year or two. It is a step toward the ultimate goal of predicting high bacteria levels days in advance, Whitman said. "Wouldn't it be wonderful to know on Friday what the water conditions will be like at your favorite beach on Saturday or Sunday?" Whitman asked. "That's where we want to be."

Until that day arrives, the best defense of our beaches involves a mix of high- and low-tech solutions, Breitenbach said. Last year the Chicago Park District debuted a specially crafted titanium rake with four-inch teeth capable of turning over deeper layers of sand, reducing bacteria by exposing it to UV light and oxygen. Think of it as a sand Zamboni that refreshes Chicago's beaches each morning.

This spring, the Chicago Park District board unanimously passed an ordinance banning the feeding of birds and wildlife along city beaches. The ordinance is designed to reduce the number of gulls that congregate and defecate on the sand, Breitenbach said.

And once again this summer, the park district plans to station rescued border collie and their handlers on a few of the city's beaches to disrupt gulls when they try to land. The dogs have proven to be a simple, effective and popular answer to the bird problem, Breitenbach said. "They stay in the open areas and try to prevent birds from landing and loafing," Breitenbach said.

The time-honored practice of flying brightly colored flags on the beach, to warn swimmers of dangerous water, has not yet gone the way of the typewriter. Flags will still fly this summer, officials said, but [the] park district two years set out to modernize how it reached the public.

District officials set up a Facebook page and a Twitter account, @chicagopark. In addition to the automated phone line (312-742-3224) that for years has offered recorded messages about beach conditions, this spring the district plans to send swim-ban notifications via text message.

As scientists learn more about the relationship between waterborne bacteria and public health, getting the information out quickly becomes the next great challenge, Breitenbach said. "We made this a commitment because we know its' a public service," she said. "These beaches are meant for all to enjoy."


Discussion with Holiday Wirick of USEPA and Justin DeWitt of Illinois Department of Public Health at the March 12, 2007 JPAC meeting

Courtesy of JPAC Newsletter April 2007 and HPKCC Conference Reporter 2007 No. 1 April

Officials Update Lake Issue, Swim Bans at Jackson Park Meeting
by Gary Ossewaarde, body from JPAC Newsletter April 2007

In the September Reporter, we described changes in Chicago standards for swim bans at beaches based on testing, along with concerns some have expressed that the changes may present a danger to public health. Below is an update summary of a discussion at the March 12, 2007 Jackson Park Advisory Council meeting with Holiday Wirick, a Water Quality administrator with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region 5, and Justin DeWitt, Beach Administrator with the Illinois Department of Public Health.

The U.S. Beach Act is the point of interface between Chicago and state and federal agencies. Chicago is currently in compliance with the Beach Act, the presenters said. This legislation requires that if a jurisdiction seeks eligibility for grants fund testing, surveys, etc. at beaches, then should the beach water reach a concentration of 235 cfu of indicator bacteria, that jurisdiction must take an action, which could be closure or public notification and signage.

Chicago formerly closed beaches after two days of readings of 235 or higher; it now gives notice after one day of such readings and closes the beach whenever 1,000 is exceeded. The federal standard, developed in the 1970s, has not changed—revised standards and protocols are being developed. Chicago tests much more frequently than most jurisdictions (the minimum is once a week). There is not agreement over what are the best tests or way and places to conduct them, they said—and agreed that many sources of illness are missed or not tested for. The guests said some trials such as in Lake County suggest that modeling is superior to testing. Also, the real goal is to have progress on safe beach waters and clean Great Lakes. As for a trend for more closures on the Great Lakes in the past decade, at least some reflects more testing, they said.

Questions were raised about adoption and public health implications of Chicago’s new standard. Director of Lakefront Operations Alonzo Williams reported that input was taken on the change and that Chicago will be applying for grants. Also, under a different grant, a thorough search will be made at two Chicago beach catchments for outfalls and point sources pf pollution. Members asked that the park district choose oft-closed 63rd Street as one of the test beaches. According to Williams, the district also has an educational program to discourage actions that contribute to beach and water contamination and is rolling out the new waste containers. And changes were made to the shape of 63rd beach. Members noted that most of the storm and general runoff from park lawn panels on the south lakefront ends up untreated in the lake.

Wirick, DeWitt, Ellen Sargent of the park district, Alliance for the Great Lakes spokesperson Frances Canonizado, and members agreed on the importance of the new Great Lakes Collaboration among the states and provinces to address the pollution problems of the Great Lakes Basin. This would require states’ ratification and heavy federal funding.

Asked when and for whom the waters are safe, the guests said it depends on the state of the individual and suggested people be cautious about entering the water when the 235 standard is exceeded, or the days after a storm. Members were concerned that Chicago may have set the level for closure too high; the guests said it is a good starting point. A suggested source of more information is the Centers for Disease Control website-- go to Healthy Swimming.
Members proposed better signage, that flyers explaining the protocol and the dangers be handed out at the beach whenever 235 cfu is exceeded, and that outreach be done in the schools and field houses before summer and at summer camps, and to seniors and other vulnerable persons. Chicago Park District, with the 5th Ward Office, is working to implement most of these.

Frances Canonizado of the Alliance for the Great Lakes said:
· Everyone needs to get together for better education,
· There is a funding problem, starting at the federal level (noting that the Beach Act doesn’t fund remediation), and
· It is urgent that action be taken to fix the problems—we should start green actions such as plantings, which have been shown to be effective.

Jackson Park Advisory Council
2nd Monday of Each Month
Jackson Park Fieldhouse
6402 S. Stony Island
Contact Ross Petersen, 773 486-0505



At the end of July, 2007 JPAC was informed that 63rd St. beach was selected as one of two Illinois sites to receive a grant from the federal EPA (applied for on behalf of Illinois Department of Public Health, local grantee Chicago Park District. The grant will fund as a pilot site an inventory of ll the possible sources of contamination in the 63rd Street beach watershed. Each source will be documented using GIS and GPS, as well as appropriate E. coli sampling at each potential source. Also, a characterization of hydrodynamic conditions at the beach will be undertaken to assess their impact on E. coli level at the beach.

City's new protocol in 2006

JPAC holds, according to resolutions from July 2006, that the Park District is not complying with the EPA/IDPH guidelines for notification of the public when benchmarks are exceeded short of the 1000 mandating a swim ban. These are guidelines reportedly binding on those who consent; the pd signed ark district did sign on and should be eligible for BEACH Act grants. JPAC believes the public is not being provided proper signage with explanation of what kind of warning is being issued by the flown yellow flag, including notice at beach access points, as recommended by the federal EPA. JPAC believes this creates potential danger to the public, especially children, seniors, and ill and immuno-compromised people. JPAC resolved in July 2006 that the Park District should comply.

This reporter, Gary Ossewaarde, understands from EPA that 235 is still their standard, but those qualifying for grants or wishing to have the imprimatur of compliance are not required to use it--just so they give a timely advisory or close the beach. EPA in discussions with the Park District reportedly asked for better measures to inform the public what the yellow and red flags mean. Chicago adopted 1,000 from the Wisconsin Beach master's directive (which incorporated several reforms Wisconsin had not been doing.) Although the state (Illinois Dept. Public Health) and not the federal EPA were said to be responsible for beaches, neither, we were told by EPA sources, has explicit authority to direct jurisdictions to take any measures.

EPA and IDPH have reportedly met with the park district and suggested specific measures that would improve meaningful public notification.

From the JPAC July meeting and August Newsletter

Fran Vandervoort reported on information she obtained from the United States EPA about changing water quality standards at Chicago beaches. In particular, maximum allowed coliform counts have been increased from 235 to 1000 colonies per 100 ml of water. A red flag, previously the warning for dangerously high waves, is now required if the count exceeds 1000 and a yellow flag for counts between 235 and 1000. JPAC has observed the parks are not following the letter of EPA requirements for public notification about high bacterial counts, even if one did not have reservations about the “yellow flag” program in the first place. JPAC does commend the daily sampling of water and swimming ban upon one day of high readings instead of two. Following is a draft resolution moved and accepted in principle:

The Jackson Park Advisory Council believes that the system now used by the Chicago Park District to notify the public of high levels of bacteria is inadequate at best and dangerous at worst. Warning flags must be posted in accord with EPA standards (see Addendum) at access points to beaches, and brightly colored signs must be posted with the words WARNING, ADVISORY, or BEACH CLOSED with reason, visible to all. Signs must be in Spanish as well as English. The health of the public depends upon it.

Addendum to minutes:

Submitted by Fran Vandervoort, Nature Committee Co-chair

JPAC has been in communication with the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) about the relaxation of standards for coliform bacteria on Chicago’s beaches. Holiday Wirick, EPA beach coordinator, confirmed that the standard for issuing a beach advisory (yellow flag) is 235 colonies per 100 ml of water. At 1000 colonies or above the beach would be closed as indicated by a red flag. In past years, the lower count would have resulted in beach closings. Then, two tests exceeding 235 were sufficient to close the beaches. Now, beaches are tested daily, and closed when a test exceeds 1000. With this change, Chicago is now in compliance with EPA performance criteria and will be eligible for BEACH Act grant funds.

The following excerpts are taken from the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency’s National Beach Guidance and Required Performance Criteria for Grants.

Section 5.3.3 of the BEACH act, “When to Notify,” list the following requirements:

(1) If the decision is made to notify the public (based on exceedance of the water quality standard), the appropriate agency must promptly notify the beach manager/operator and appropriate staff members (e. g., lifeguards).

(2) The appropriate agency must promptly notify the public of an exceedance of applicable water quality standards by either a sign or functional equivalent. [This notification] should occur at the point of beach access.

(3) [Communication] at the point of access could be a visual notice or personal interaction such as a flag at a beach or interaction with beach or park personnel. Other … measures not provided at point of access include mass media (newspapers, TV, radio), Internet web sites, telephone hotlines, and technical reports.

(4) Beach signs should state the type of advisory closing and the reason it was issued – an exceedance of water quality criteria… or another reason as deemed appropriate.

(5) Signs should be located where they are most likely to be noticed by beach users, … should be a bright color, such are red or yellow, to attract attention. The words “WARNING,” “ADVISORY,” or “BEACH CLOSED” should be written in large letters at the top of the signs so that they can be read from a distance… The advantage of a sign is that they provide visual notice at the point of access.

Additional information obtained from the U.S. EPA includes a data taken from a chart of water quality criteria. This chart indicates that the risk level for E. coli bacteria is 0.8% at 235 colonies per 100 ml of water. This means that 8 out of 1000 swimmers could potentially become sick when swimming in water with a density of 235 colonies of E. coli per 100 ml of water.

Note: It is important to recognize that E. coli is an indicator species, and not usually a contaminant in itself. In other words, an elevated level of E. coli can indicate that the environment is hospitable to pathogenic bacteria, including Salmonella, Giardia, and Cryptosporidium.

[From the Editor in the Newsletter: JPAC has yet to discover why 1000 cfu became an acceptable standard. (Only Chicago and Wisconsin of Great Lakes municipalities have departed from 235.) Also, JPAC has consistently supported the strongest possible efforts to stop Lake contamination in the first place, including from outfalls and wash from lawns and parking lots. Certainly, people could do a lot more to intercept food and garbage from the beach and water. Gary Ossewaarde]

From the September Newsletter:

Here is additional information JPAC has obtained, in part from the U.S. EPA:

  • EPA and Illinois Department of Public Health representatives met with the Chicago Park District and suggested advisory public notifications that would conform with the BEACH Act. The BEACH ACT offers grants that would help the city pay for its very extensive testing (possibly including validation of tests that have faster turnaround and are more reliable) as well as for good notification
  • The new 1,000 cfu per 100 ml water standard does not come from the EPA but was developed in Wisconsin as part of a program in which Wisconsin jurisdictions would do new things re closures, notice. To the extent 1,000 has been tested (this information is not from EPA), the number that may become ill at that concentration is 14 per 1,000 as opposed to 8 per 1,000 at 235 cfu per 100 ml.
    Observation: closing a beach after one day of high tests rather than two, may cancel this increased risk, but not necessarily for children, the elderly, or immuno-compromised persons. Persons in this vicinity have reported getting illnesses this year after swimming nearby in Lake Michigan.
  • In July, 2006 the Natural Resources Defense Fund filed a suit in California alleging the federal government failed to protect Great Lakes and other bathers health and EPA with failing to follow the BEACH Act mandate to do new testing and develop a new, enforceable standard for swim bans within 5 years. EPA says its current standard is good and the health of beaches good—and more beaches monitored than ever, notwithstanding increasing numbers of bans and closures.




By Gary Ossewaarde

The city has changed the protocol on swimming bans at beaches. You will have to watch for flags changing from green to yellow to red. As we understand it, there will now be closures only if the indicator bacteria goes above 1,000 colony-forming units per milliliter, not the former 235, but that the closures will now occur upon one day rather than two of exceedance of standard.

Cook County, IL and Wisconsin are the only Great Lakes beaches using the new 1,000 standard, most of the rest still use 235 and Ontario 100. Most or more jurisdictions around the Great Lakes do test less frequently. How many days beaches of successive exceedance these jurisdictions allow before beaches are closed is not known to us.

The change occurred with no or little notice to or discussion with most environmental watchdog groups or park watchdog groups including advisory councils. Notice in media was short--and the NBC coverage of beach closings focused on the pollution reality in certain states and general infrequency of testing, lack of application of fast-testing, and slowness of notice and closures since the test water has to be incubated. Chicago is in fact way ahead of the game on most of these, but still has a high number and percentage of closure days, 63rd generally leading the pack.

The 235 standard was developed and implemented as mandatory for beach advisories (notification must be prompt) by EPA at least as early as 1986 (according to EPA website--citations below). Presumably it had been shown that at 235 the statistical or epidemiological possibility of 1 in 1,000 getting sick becomes real--seldom from E. coli but from the other pathogens that accompany E. coli, which is a marker. The 2001 Whitman report on 63rd Beach E. coli (which see) cites and applies 235 as the enforceable limit. The Centers for Disease Control website indicates CDC is still more comfortable with 235 rather than 1,000. We note that what is OK for normal persons may not be safe for the very young, the elderly, or immuno-compromised.

Our researchers have yet to discover why the precise number 1,000 or any higher number is now acceptable, but by closing after one day of testing the city is said by EPA to be in compliance with the performance criteria for grants and will now be eligible for BEACH grant funds. The city tests 5 to 7 days a week, and there is a precise governmental criteria as to what the municipality must do after a water quality standard is exceeded.

We are also uncertain of time of day of testing at various beaches--the Whitman 2001 study at 63rd Street Beach showed that conservative practice makes it essential that testing be done by mid morning--concentrations generally go down--usually dramatically--thereafter and only occasionally up (and then from extremely low to still under 235.

The city now posts yellow flags with signage and public information when cfu is above 235 and installed new covered garbage wheeled garbage cans, in addition to discouraging gull congregations downtown. (See public brochure, below). There were questions about the sufficiency, clarity and location of the signs in 2006.

  • It will be more difficult to compare year to year, although we have been told the state and federal agencies can. And what happens if the count is 990 on a heavy use day--or on the north on Air Show day?
  • Signage and wording on signage is observed to be insufficient, and not given at approaches or parking lots.
  • No one is available to warn or explain at the beach, including whether the local problem on the yellow flag day is roughness or bacteria--it could make a big difference in an individual's decision. Lifeguards rightly concentrate on watching water and beach and cannot be answering questions.

At a City Council Committee on Parks and Recreation hearing June 2006, questioning on this matter is reported as having been met with complacency and remark that advocacy groups approved the change.

As of the end of June 2006, 63rd Street beach had already been closed twice at the new 1,000 cfu trigger--with no available information as to how often the yellow flag was put up (showing the beach would have been closed at over 235 cfu.) One closure after the big June 21 storm may have been widespread and involved a possible lock opening. On July 9, all the city beaches were closed--and there hadn't been a heavy rain in 5 days.

Documentary sources in the EPA website.

http://www.epa.gov/beaches/ find Reports and References, find 1986 Ambient Water Quality Criteria for Bacteria including about 3 pages from the back Table 4, Criteria for Indicator for Bacteriological Densities.

Also under Reports and References in the above site scroll 1/3 of way down and find National Beach Guidance and Required Performance Criteria for Grants: go to Chapter 5, Section 5.3.3 "when to notify." Chapter 4 Section 4.2.1 Monitoring Design- Section A discusses when to sample, Section B what to do after a standard is exceeded. Top


Hot Tips for Safe Summer Fun at the Beach (Orange handout at beaches and fieldhouses. Chicago Park District)

Contacts: www.chicagoparkdistrict.com, 312 742-PLAY, Beach Hotline 312 74BEACH

The Chicago Park District brings you a splash of pointer to help make the most of your time at the beach.

Keep Beaches Clean

While the Chicago Park District works to ensure the beaches maintain a high level of sanitary standards, you can help. This is how:

  • Do not feed birds on the beach.
  • Keep your picnic sites tidy and free of trash.
  • At the beach and in the parking lot, put all trash in cans.
  • Do not swim if you are not feeling well.
  • Put your infants and toddlers in swim diapers
  • Clean up after your pet.

Swim Ban

Be aware of the current water quality conditions at your local beach with the flag notification system.

Flag notification system

Green- Swimming is permitted. Water is calm and quality is safe based on current monitoring for E. coli bacteria.

Yellow- Advisory is in effect. Caution is advised. Water and weather conditions becoming unpredictable. Restrictions may be implemented. Increased risk of illness may be present based on current monitoring for E. coli bacteria.

Red- Swim ban is in effect due to severe weather and/or water conditions, which may e hazardous. Serious risk of illness may be present based on current monitoring of E. coli bacteria.

Water Conditions FAQ

What causes marginal water conditions?

Generally, there are four factors that contribute to unacceptable levels of E. coli, naturally occurring bacteria: high temperatures, heavy rainfall, low lake levels[,] and gull waste. Gull waste is believed to be the main cause of marginal beach water conditions. that is why we discourage feeding birds on the beach.

What do the colored flags mean?

The colored notification flags are indicators for current water conditions (see "FLAG CODE" on reverse side).

How can I learn about the current water conditions before heading to the beach?

Call the Chicago Park District Beach Hotline to learn more about current water conditions at 312-74BEACH or on-line at www.chicagoparkdistrict.com.

What can I do to help keep the beaches clean?

Public support is vital to maintaining cleaner, safer beaches. Dispose of all trash and do not feed the birds. Cleaner beaches result in fewer swim bans.

Beach hours

All beaches are open until 9:30 p.m. South Shore beach- open until 8:00 p.m. The beach season runs through [Labor Day].