Flushing Out the Truth
Despite what you may have heard, Lake Michigan beach closings in Illinois are only occasionally caused by sewage overflows from cities in the region. They’re more often triggered by other local issues, such as contaminated rainwater runoff from the land, excrement from birds and wildlife, excessive algae in the lake, and occasional diluted stormwater sewage from Chicagoland.
While a closed beach can be a serious bummer on a hot summer day, you can hardly blame raw sewage dumping as the reason you can’t swim, wade, or play your favorite water sport. In fact, the majority of pollutants that cause beach closings in Lake Michigan are derived from other local sources.
Water running off parking lots, streets, lawns, and homes carry bacteria and other contaminants into the lake while also transporting nutrients, such as lawn fertilizer, that promote excess algal growth in the water and on the beach. This is a cause for concern as mats of algae are suspected of harboring high concentrations of E. coli, a bacterium indicating a potential threat to human health.
Moreover, large congregations of wildlife, such as gulls, are attracted to beaches by garbage left behind from picnics (and after they feast, they deposit their waste both along the sand and in the water!)
Fortunately, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD), Chicagoland’s combined stormwater and sewage treatment agency, can handle most anything. Nearly all the sewage is directed down the Chicago Area Waterways, away from the lake. Only on rare occasions—four times in the last six years—do big storms force the MWRD to discharge excess sewage diluted by stormwater into Lake Michigan.
The Problem for People
So what’s the problem for us? If your eyes, nose, ears, or mouth come in contact with pollutants in the water and on the beach, you could get sick. Keeping your best interest in mind, local officials conduct extensive monitoring of bacterial counts, which allows them to close beaches when the water may be unsafe for swimming.
According to the U.S. EPA, of the 69 total beaches in Lake and Cook counties, 51 were monitored in 2007. The task of monitoring and closing beaches is performed by the Chicago Park District and Lake County health department. Most of the beaches in Illinois are monitored using a test for E. coli bacteria; however, three beaches in Lake County and one in Chicago are currently using a novel SwimCast system that determines pollution levels based on climate and wave data.
What You Can Do
Fortunately, beach closings are a problem that can often be solved with local solutions. Here’s what you can do to help:
- Don’t dirty the beach—this means cleaning up your food, other garbage, and after your pet.
- Make the beach even cleaner than when you found it. One good way: simply join a beach cleanup day.
- Visit the EPA’s BEACON site to review a beach sanitary survey and find out what pollutes your favorite stretch of sand.
- Reduce the amount of fertilizers and pesticides you use on your yard at home. These chemicals can flow into Lake Michigan and cause algae buildup.
- If you want to think bigger, learn about some large-scale cleanups. Cities like Racine, Wisconsin, have demonstrated how a community commitment can eliminate high bacteria counts and keep beaches safe and open to all.
- Finally, enjoy the water and the beach. In Cook and Lake counties, 83 percent of all beach days were open to the public in 2007—a high enough percentage to allow for ample beach action all summer long.
Written by Joel Brammeier, Alliance for the Great Lakes