No day at the beach (Cover Story)

Breanne Gilpatrick

At 7 a.m. every morning, samples are taken from the water of all five Evanston beaches to see if the lake is safe for swimming. But the results from those samples aren’t available until the next morning. This means if the Evanston Park/Forestry and Recreation Department receives notice of high bacteria levels, it could be closing beaches a day too late.

The department opens the beaches each day if it receives a green light from the health department, said Doug Gaynor, Director of Parks/Forestry and Recreation. To determine if these beaches can be opened, the health department tests the water to see whether it contains an unacceptable level of E. coli bacteria, Gaynor said. The city also could close its beaches if the weather is a concern, he said.

In fact, the city has closed more beaches at a faster rate this summer than last summer because of bacteria levels and weather-related issues, said Jay Terry, director of Health and Human Services. But he added that without the final numbers it will be difficult to see how the total number of beach closings this year will compare to previous years. Terry said there has been no day when every Evanston beach was closed.

But these closures and issues with lake bacteria testing still have commanded quite a bit of attention. The issue was mentioned at the June 28 City Council meeting, and Terry said the health department has received a lot of media calls. But he said so far no residents have called with reports or worries of illness.

“With all the concern about testing,” Terry said, “we’re not aware of anyone who has become ill by swimming in the lake.”

The acceptable levels of E. coli are set by the Illinois Department of Public Health in Springfield, Ill., Terry said. And with the exception of a couple of pilot programs being used in different areas, Evanston uses the same 24-hour test as other local health departments.

Joel Brammeier, acting executive director for the Lake Michigan Federation, an advocacy group working to protect Lake Michigan, explained the E. coli testing is used as a standard water quality test because E. coli is an “indicator species.” This means the presence of E. coli indicates the presence of other pathogens and bacteria in the water.

But he said the test’s 24-hour delay is not due to outdated techniques.

“What you’re really testing is yesterday’s water, not today’s water, ” Terry said. “But that is the state-of-the-art in testing technology.”

The Chicago Park District is one of the areas along Lake Michigan piloting a faster E. coli test at its beaches. This new test is being used alongside the 24-hour test at Chicago beaches and is capable of yielding results within three or four hours, said Lisa Arizzi, spokeswoman for the Chicago Park District.

The Chicago Park District would love to adopt the faster test but must wait until the Environmental Protection Agency approves it as an acceptable test for E. coli, Arizzi said.

In a separate program, Lake County is looking to have faster water quality results by piloting a test that predicts the E. coli levels in the water without actually searching for bacteria.

The Lake County Health Department used a federal grant to install equipment at Lake Forest Beach and Illinois Beach State Park that uses climate data like temperature, water clarity, wind and precipitation to determine if the bacteria levels are high enough to call for a swim ban, said Leslie Piotrowski, spokeswoman for the Lake County Health Department. She said Lake County also will continue to use the standard 24-hour test at all of its beaches.

This pilot test allows the health department to obtain more real-time results, Piotrowski said.

“There has been some frustration that it takes 24 hours to close a beach and call for a swim ban,” she said. “So we could be closing the beach 24 hours too late and we could be closing a beach when in fact the beach could be totally fine.”

The Lake County pilot is still in its first 30 days, so it is too soon to know if it will be successful, Piotrowski said. She said the health department plans to re-examine the issue at the end of the summer. If the new method is adopted, the health department would then have to raise the money to buy the equipment for the other nine Lake County beaches, she said.

Mary Riley, a second-year Education graduate student, goes down to Chicago beaches once or twice each summer, and she said she would like to see a faster test used in Evanston as long as the results were just as accurate. She said the 24-hour delay of the current testing methods is a concern.

“Twenty-four hours is a long period of time if you don’t know if it’s safe or not until after you’ve already been playing in the water,” Riley said.

Terry, from the Evanston health department, said there are no plans to implement a new test for use at Evanston beaches until the results of pilot programs like those in Chicago and Lake County are known.

If a shorter test were to be used, the city then would have to decide when and how often to test. These issues raise questions about whether Evanston would have the resources needed for frequent testing and whether such testing would be necessary.

“There are two schools of thought,” Terry said. “One is that everyone should be notified immediately if the bacteria levels are a concern. And there’s another group of residents that think we’re too sensitive and that’s just the risk you take by swimming in Lake Michigan.”

Brammeier from the Lake Michigan Federation said E. coli levels fluctuate so rapidly that even frequent testing might not help. Instead, cities and organizations should focus on discovering the causes of bacteria buildup and spend more time working on ways to clean up beaches, he said.

He explained that the Lake Michigan Federation tries to do this through its Adopt-A-Beach program. Students, community groups and families that participate in the program work with the organization to clean up litter and monitor water quality. Brammeier said getting at the sources of lake contamination would be better than even the most efficient test.

“We can monitor all day, ” Brammeier said, “but that doesn’t eliminate the problem.”

City Reporter Breanne Gilpatrick is a Medill junior. She can be reached at [email protected]