Bacteria-level concerns lower beach attendance

Breanne Gilpatrick

Beach revenue in Evanston may be down by nearly 15 percent this year thanks to a colder-than-normal summer and high bacteria levels, the Evanston Parks/Forestry and Recreation director said Monday.

Although final numbers won’t become available until at least the end of the month, the city does not expect to reach its projected revenue of a half million dollars, said Doug Gaynor, director of Parks/Forestry and Recreation. Gaynor said this year’s loss is the largest he has seen in the seven years he has been with the city.

High bacteria levels kept people out of the water and the unexpectedly cold summer weather kept people away from the beaches altogether, Gaynor said.

The Lake Michigan bacteria levels caused 30 closings at the five Evanston beaches during the approximately 90-day season, said Gaynor, whose department makes the decision to close the beaches.

Although there has been a lot of media coverage of unacceptable bacteria levels in Lake Michigan this summer, testing has found the bacteria levels at Evanston beaches has been roughly the same as in previous years, said Jay Terry, Evanston’s director of Health and Human Services.

Terry called it difficult to determine what causes these high bacteria levels.

“That’s been the million-dollar question for the past four, five, six years,” Terry said. “There’s a lot of theories out there from wind to weather to wave action.”

Terry said media attention has increased because of the efforts of an advocacy group called Lake Michigan Federation, the work of local campaigns focusing on water quality and attention given to a Lake County pilot project to develop a predictive model for estimating bacteria levels. He received about 20 media calls this summer.

This media attention has led to more calls from the public as well as more people hearing about the issue on the news, Terry said. He said he has not received any calls from residents reporting illness due to swimming in the lake, but he has received calls from about 50 residents with questions about bacteria levels in the lake.

The Chicago Park District also saw a total of 122 closings at its beaches through Aug. 18, with at least a few more the last few days of the season, said Lisa Arizzi, spokeswoman for the Chicago Parks District.

But Arizzi said this number is consistent with the number of closings last year, and the Chicago Park District is not experiencing a decrease in revenue because it doesn’t charge admission at its beaches.

Gaynor said the policy of charging admission at Evanston beaches is the result of an Evanston City Council decision that dates back at least 20 years. The money from beach token sales and daily admission fees goes into the city’s general fund as part of Evanston’s $164 million budget, and Gaynor said the city can’t do much about a decrease in beach revenue.

“The two factors are weather and bacteria, and those factors are beyond our control,” Gaynor said.

Reach Breanne Gilpatrick at [email protected]