by Joel Brammeier, Lake Michigan Federation
Lake Michigan beach closings rose sharply in Illinois in 2001. Lake Michigan Federation statistics indicate that beaches were closed for a total of 339 days during the Memorial Day to Labor Day swimming season. This represents a new record for beach closings in Illinois since the Federation began keeping statistics in 1994. All of these closings were due to elevated levels of E. coli or fecal coliform bacteria.
Beaches can be forced to close by local officials when bacteria levels exceed health standards. The primary cause of the elevated bacteria counts appears to be a series of combined sewer overflows that occurred during storm events this summer. Locks holding back a mixture of rainwater and raw sewage from Lake Michigan were opened six times during the beach season. One of these openings resulted in a rare reversal of the Chicago River to its original flow into the lake. Wildlife was responsible for some of the closings in northern Illinois, where seagull waste has presented a persistent problem for beachgoers.
When beaches close, communities can lose millions of dollars in tourism income according to recent studies. Everyone who enjoys the use of nearshore areas for recreation — including kayakers and swimmers — is at risk when untreated wastewater is present, and children may be especially susceptible if they put contaminated sand in their mouths.
In response to these ongoing problems, the Federation is establishing the Citizens’ Center for Beach Health to advise citizens and community groups on ways to combat the problem. The Federation will be working over the critical winter months to get community-oriented strategies in place to protect public health from bacteria around Lake Michigan. The goal of the Citizens’ Center is to assist individuals and community groups identify and solve bacterial pollution problems around the Great Lakes. It can provide advice on everything from beach water quality monitoring to ways in which treatment plants can reduce their discharges of polluted wastewater. Citizens may ask for advice by contacting the Federation at (312) 939-0838 ext 3, or by emailing email@example.com.