The kickoff of the swimming season in Illinois met an unfortunate obstacle in 2001 with the closure of one of the City of Chicago’s most popular beaches. 63rd Street Beach closed almost immediately upon opening for the season on Memorial Day weekend. The closing is attributed to the usual suspect – high levels of E. coli bacteria likely stirred up from the lake bottom by recent storm events. The beach has a long history of high bacteria counts leading to extended closings over the last several years.
The City of Chicago has pledged to implement the most effective beach monitoring techniques available and will be field-testing several new technologies this summer. Current E. coli tests require 24 hours to culture bacteria samples before determination of whether the count will put swimmers at risk. This means there is clear potential for contaminated beaches to remain open for swimming while test results are being assessed. Results from faster tests that rely on genetic methods will be compared with those from conventional testing by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) this fall to determine if they can be approved for nationwide beach monitoring. The city will also be comparing results from predictive statistical models developed by the United States Geological Survey to actual bacteria counts in a step toward implementing a “beach forecasting” program.
The Lake Michigan Federation is looking forward to continuing its efforts to ensure that progressive beach monitoring technologies are effectively implemented at all bathing beaches around Lake Michigan. However, there has been a noticeable lack of focus on problem prevention as well as public education around the Great Lakes. It is essential that agencies provide resources for source determination and elimination in addition to simply monitoring public beaches. Coupled with an outreach program that empowers citizens to understand the causes and effects of contaminated beaches, the Federation will work toward making beach closings a relic of the past instead of a fact of life.