We're two weeks into August and temperatures stubbornly refuse to rise out of the "idyllic" range (well, except for those pesky tornadoes). With tropical storms raging through the South and kiln-like heat waves intermittently baking the Northeast, the Midwest can really thumb its temperate, comfortable nose at the rest of the country...for now. But we know it's coming: that annual three-week atmospheric gulag of humid misery, when you wish you could peel off your skin and the only refuge for those of us without AC is either the frigid womb of the movie theater or the cool embrace of the lake.
However, there are some days at the beach when you don't want to dip your toe in the drink—much less fully submerge—no matter how oppressive the air. Quite a few days, as it turns out. Last year Chicago had its second-highest number of beach closings ever, due to high levels of E. coli bacteria. In a report issued by the National Resources Defense Council last week, Illinois ranked number one in the nation for beach closings in 2007. And it's not just our little corner of Lake Michigan that is, quite literally, catching all the flack; according to the report, entitled Testing the Waters, "15% of Great Lakes beach samples violated public health standards, more than twice the national average."
To Chicago's credit, our high rate of swim advisories and beach closings has a lot to do with the city's rigorous testing policies. Law dictates that public beaches must be tested for bacteria at least three days a week; Chicago tests all beaches a minimum of five and issues warnings at the first sign of trouble, without waiting for the results of re-tests as many other states do. Nonetheless, the frequency of high E. coli levels in Lake Michigan is troubling. Some beaches—like the 63rd Street beach—are particularly plagued by contamination. A new solar-powered testing facility, which takes water samples from the 63rd Street beach hourly and then transmits the information to the Chicago Park District Administration Building, recently opened in an effort to closely track contamination and issue advisories as quickly as possible.
So what's making our lake so dirty? As the pie chart (or, more accurately, the solid-blue-dot chart) in the NRDC report illustrates, it's hard to pinpoint. But the general answer was, when I first heard it, enough to keep me on the shore for the whole summer of '04. Beachfront pollution sources include stormwater runoff that carries agricultural chemicals and toxins—oil, antifreeze, cigarette butts, dog poo—from streets into the watershed. More disturbing is the overflow caused when sewage-treatment facilities exceed capacity during heavy storms, resulting in untreated sewage spilling into the lake. Our own poop isn't the sole culprit; gull droppings carry high levels of E. coli. You wouldn't feed birds roosting close to your car and you definitely don't want to give them ammo where you plan to strip down and play Marco Polo.
Bacteria count rises in areas where the water is shallow and poorly circulated, especially on warm days. The breakwaters bracketing the beach at 63rd pose the biggest problem for controlling pollution; southbound contamination tends to gather between the breakwaters and doesn't wash back into the lake.
Aside from being unpleasant to think about, contaminated water can pose a health threat, particularly to young children and the elderly. The most disturbing section of the NRDC press release was a statement that current water-testing standards are both insufficient and 20 years out of date: "...outdated science and monitoring methods leave beachgoers vulnerable to a range of waterborne illnesses including gastroenteritis, dysentery, hepatitis, respiratory ailments and other serious health problems." Ick.
A Beach Protection Act that would allocate money to improve water testing and track pollution sources just passed the House of Representatives and is pending in the Senate. In the meantime, check the Park District's daily Swim Report for updates on bans and advisories before strapping on the swim fins and goggles. And don't be afraid to use your good judgment; if the water looks or smells suspicious, check the movie listings.
It took a move from the regimented lawnscapes of the suburbs to the congestion of a major metropolis for Sharon to look twice at what she puts in the trash, down the sink and into her own body. She reports fortnightly on her endeavors to change "greening" from calculated deviation to a practicable way of life. You can contact her here.