Ten percent of water samples taken from the 65 beaches and beach segments of Illinois in 2012 tested positive for high levels of bacteria, according to a new report from the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
Illinois ranked 24th out of 30 states evaluated for beach water quality last year in the NRDC’s annual “Testing The Water” report. The state, which rose from being ranked 28th in 2011, has 52 public swimming beaches along the coast of Lake Michigan.
“We have a closed system here in the Great Lakes, and all of our pollution tends to linger,” said Karen Hobbs, senior policy analyst with NRDC. “It’s hard to say exactly what’s happening in Illinois. That’s why its important for beach managers to be proactive and be out there testing the water and identifying the sources of pollution.”
Hobbs added that one out of every 10 water samples tested from beaches along the Great Lakes exceeded the national maximum standards for E. coli levels.
Compared to other states bordering Lake Michigan, Illinois fell behind Michigan, ranked 15th, but was found by the NRDC to have cleaner beach water quality than Indiana, which was ranked 25th, and Wisconsin, which fell in at 29th.
According to Hobbs, aging water infrastructure, an enormous amount of stormwater runoff and frequent raw sewage overflows are the leading contributors to contamination of Illinois’ beaches.
“There are so many factors that go into beach water quality,” she said. “We don’t always know the exact contamination source.”
The state, she added, has been making significant strides in attempting to lessen pollution of its beaches.
Chicago’s Rainbow Beach, at 3111 East 77th St., was found to be the second most contaminated beach in Illinois. It will soon have a green stormwater filtration system installed to collect and reduce runoff and treat beach water. Funded by a Great Lakes Restoration Initiative grant in 2012, the Chicago Park District plans to construct the filtration system after the 2013 beach season.
Of the water samples tested at Rainbow Beach, 30 percent tested positive for high levels of E. coli. The beach was closed 22 days last year due to unsafe water conditions.
The most contaminated beach in Illinois, according to the report, is Montrose Dog Beach, at the corner of Wilson Ave. and Simonds Dr. Thirty-eight percent of water samples from the beach exceeded maximum state bacterial levels.
“The source of E. coli contamination is not well defined, but if you look at where outbreaks occur, it is often where birds and animals congregate,” said Steven Forman, professor of earth and environmental sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Forman added that he is not surprised Montrose Dog Beach was ranked the worst beach for water quality in the state.
“E. coli likes organic detritus, or fecal material, and although I don’t think there’s any sewage being directly drained into the lake, those areas with a lot of bird and dog activity are going to be more contaminated,” he said.
According to the report, the contamination at 63rd Street Beach, which is located in Jackson Park, is due in large part to a high concentration of seagulls. Border collies, the report indicates, have been used in the past to routinely chase the birds away and improve water quality.
E. coli is often linked to serious illness, such as diarrhea, urinary tract infections, respiratory illness and pneumonia. Certain strains of the bacteria, which are usually found in the intestines of animals and humans, can cause death and contaminate both food and water. A virulent strain of E. coli caused a foodborne illness outbreak in Germany in 2011 that resulted in nearly 4,000 infections across the world and 53 deaths.
The NRDC report analyzes data on E. coli and bacteria levels in U.S. beaches collected by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and local agencies.
“The most important thing we can do to keep our great lake clean is keep raw sewage out of the Chicago River and North Shore Channel,” said Jack Darin, director of the Sierra Club, Illinois Chapter.
According to Darin, Cook County’s aging water infrastructure allows raw sewage to flow into the Chicago River and North Shore Channel during heavy rainstorms. Untreated sewage combined with storm water gets released into Chicagoland’s waterways at overflow points during inclement weather, he said. Then, in order to keep the water level down, the locks to lake Michigan are opened and the river and channel water, which includes raw sewage, flows into the lake and affects Chicago’s beaches.
“Both the state and federal government investing in clean water infrastructure is a key step to not only healthier beaches, but also job creation in Illinois,” he said.
Darin also added that beach goers should practice commonsense practices to preserve beach quality, such as disposing of garbage properly, cleaning up after pets and children, and not feeding wildlife.
“We don’t have a quick solution,” he said. “So we need to be extremely careful and protective of our great lake.”