Use The Rinse Cycle

Chicago has many attractions: deep-dish pizza, President Barack Obama’s home, Buckingham Fountain and blues music.

Keeping Chicago beaches clean

But most people don’t think of the city when they hear the word, “beaches.”

Managed by the Chicago Park District, the 24 designated swim beaches along 26 miles of lakefront attract 25 million visitors during the summer months. The park district has become an aggressive beach manager over the years, implementing several beach-management practices to ensure the beaches stay safe and clean.

Flag Notification

For starters, the park district monitors the water quality at the swimming beaches with a three-tier alert system to issue swim bans and inform beachgoers of bacteria levels. The Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) support the notification system that calls for a swim advisory to be issued when readings of the indicator bacteria Escherichia coli (E. coli) falls between a certain point. E. coli is not harmful, but its presence indicates that other pathogens may be in the water.

Although many beach managers in other cities only test water quality once a week (the minimum recommended by the USEPA), the park district decided to use a more aggressive approach and test the swimming waters five days during the week, with necessary testing measures taken on the weekends if a swim ban or advisory is posted on a Friday.

The park district uses a flag-notification system to inform patrons:

• Green–swimming is permitted

• Yellow–an advisory is in effect and caution is advised

• Red–there is a swim-ban in effect.

Recently, a texting service was introduced to inform beachgoers of the swim status. Additionally, the information can be accessed on the district’s beach hotline as well as its Web site, Facebook and Twitter.

Fighting The Birds

There are several theories on the causes of high E. coli bacteria counts in the lake water, which include high temperatures, heavy rainfall, low lake levels, the shape of the beach and gull waste.

With this in mind and by collaborating with beach managers throughout the Great Lakes region, the park district began implementing various beach-mitigation initiatives to reduce probable bacteria sources.

Recently, the district’s board of commissioners passed an ordinance that bans feeding any bird, wild animal or stray animal at any beach. One of the suspected major causes of beach water contamination is waste generated by ring-billed gulls. Research has shown a strong link between the presence of these birds and swim bans and advisories at beaches. Other Great Lakes beach managers also have implemented such bans.

Enjoying a day at Chicago's North Avenue Beach

The park district has been aware of the connection for quite some time, and has done its best to deal with the gull population. In 2007, for example, the park district and the city’s Department of Environment partnered to introduce the Ring-Billed Gull Management Program. Biologists from the United States Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services coated gull eggs with corn oil, which limited air movement through the shells and prevented the eggs from hatching. The oil does not harm adult gulls or other wildlife, and is approved by the Humane Society.

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