Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Wednesday July 2nd, 2014, 7:32pm

Report: 10 Percent Of Illinois Beach Water Samples Have Unsafe Bacteria Levels

Hitting the beach this Fourth of July holiday?

A recent report from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) suggests that swimmers take precautions to avoid getting sick from beach water that might be contaminated.

The NRDC's annual "Testing the Waters" report showed that 10 percent of water samples taken last year from 49 monitored Illinois coastal beaches and beach segments — all located in Cook and Lake counties — tested positive for high levels of bacteria from human or animal waste.

At the national level, one in 10 water quality samples collected from nearly 3,500 coastal and Great Lakes beaches also had E. coli levels that exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) new and most protective threshold for assessing swimmer safety, called the Beach Action Value (BAV). The water samples were collected last year by the EPA and state beach coordinators.

The report ranked Illinois 15th out of the 30 states evaluated for beach water quality in 2013.

Of the 30 states that participated in water monitoring programs last year as part of the federal Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health (BEACH) Act, Ohio had the most contaminated beaches, with 35 percent of samples exceeding the BAV. Seven of Ohio's beaches were among the nation's 17 "repeat offenders," meaning their water samples failed to meet public health benchmarks more than 25 percent of the time each year from 2009 to 2013, according to the report. Delaware's beach water was the best, with just 3 percent of samples failing to pass the safety test.

No beaches in Illinois made the NRDC's lists of "repeat offenders" or "superstar" beaches that have met national water quality benchmarks over the last five years.

Aging water infrastructure, stormwater runoff and sewage overflows are leading contributors to water quality problems at beaches both locally and nationally, said Karen Hobbs, senior policy analyst for the NRDC's water program.

Regionally, the Great Lakes had the most contaminated beach water last year, with 13 percent of samples failing to pass the safety test. 

For the most part, waste systems in the Great Lakes basin are designed to release raw sewage mixed with other types of untreated water into the nearest waterbody when the infrastructure becomes overburdened during heavy rainstorms, Hobbs said.  

"That's when we can see things like raw sewage in the waters along our beaches," she explained.

And since the Great Lakes are a closed system, "any pollution that washes into our Great Lakes stays there for a really long time," Hobbs added.

"We have persistent and stubborn contamination issues across the basin, but we know a couple things. We know when beach managers take the time to understand what the exact problems of beach water pollution are, they can address that using a range of different strategies," she noted. "And one of the most effective that we've seen used across the basin is the use of green infrastructure" such as natural and built systems like bioswells, street trees, green roofs, rain gardens and permeable pavement.

Green infrastructure, Hobbs said, allows stormwater to slowly seep into the ground or prevents it from entering the sewer system altogether.

As a result of the torrential rain that hit Chicago on Monday, an overflow situation occured and sewage had to be released into Lake Michigan. The Chicago Park District issued a swim ban for all city beaches on Tuesday due to water quality issues. As of Wednesday afternoon, the swim ban had been lifted for most city beaches. Find the swim status for each Chicago beach here.

Meanwhile, Chicago's Montrose Beach, 4400 N. Lake Shore Dr., and South Shore Beach, 7059 S. South Shore Dr., were found to be the most contaminated Illinois beaches in 2013, according to the report. Last year, 31 percent of water samples collected at both beaches contained unsafe levels of bacteria. 

One reason behind Montrose Beach's water quality issues could be its proximity to the Montrose Dog Beach, located near the corner of Wilson Avenue and Simonds Drive. The dog-friendly beach, adjacent to Montrose Beach, was not among the 49 Illinois beaches monitored for BAV levels in 2013. But it was found to be Illinois' most contaminated beach in 2012, according to the NRDC's last "Testing the Waters" report. 

"When you have animal waste going into the water, the water flows downstream," Hobbs said. "I believe the dog beach has to contribute to the contamination problems at Montrose."

The beach is also near the Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary. Bird waste could also be a culprit behind the high levels of bacteria found in the water, explained Judy Bramble, an assistant professor of environmental science at DePaul University's College of Science and Health.

"When you've got a large number of birds, you've got a high bacterial count," she said.

But overflow events from Chicago's combined sewer system are more of a worry "because then you have human contribution, and that concerns us more than birds," Bramble said. "That's how waterborne diseases are transmitted — from sewage or from fecal matter."

Polluted beach water, according to the report, is connected to illnesses such as stomach flu, skin rashes, pinkeye, respiratory infections, meningitis and hepatitis. 

"In no way, shape or form do we want people to stay away from the beaches ... It's one of the best parts of summer," Hobbs said. "But we think it's really important that people understand the risk that they're taking and do all that they can to manage that risk. That starts with knowing before you go."

"Make sure before you pile the kids in the car that you know whether or not the beach you're going to monitors its beach water quality on a regular basis and whether or not that beach is opened or closed on that particular day," she added.

Swimmers, especially children, should also avoid swallowing too much water at the beach.

"That's what tends to lead to some of the problems we see in kids, because they tend to spend more time submerged in the water, and so they swallow more of the water that can potentially be contaminated," Hobbs explained.

The second most contaminated Illinois beach was Lake County's North Point Marina Beach in Winthrop Harbor, 701 North Point Dr., where 23 percent of water samples collected last year exceeded the BAV. 

And at Winnetka's Elder Lane Beach, at Elder Lane and Sheridan Road, 22 percent of water samples failed to meet the safety threshold last year.

While Winnetka's Elder Lane Beach was among the top contaminated Illinois beaches in 2013, its water quality has improved over recent years. But Hobbs is worried that progress might be reversed if the village follows through with a plan to build a giant tunnel to send stormwater runoff into Lake Michigan.

"We haven't seen the final analysis for what's going to be in that stormwater, or how they're going to treat it to make sure it doesn't increase pollutant loading into Lake Michigan," she said of the village's controversial tunnel proposal. 

"One of the things we would urge the village to fully consider is how using green infrastructure can reduce the size of the pipe or reduce some of the overall need for it," Hobbs added. "Looking at changes we're going to see over time with climate change and precipitation patterns, decisions that we make now about our infrastructure are going to have multi-generational impacts, and we need to make sure what we're investing our dollars in now doesn't create more problems down the road." 

Rounding out the top five most contaminated Illinois beaches last year was Chicago's Rainbow Beach, located at 3111 East 77th St. Water samples collected at the beach failed the safety test 21 percent of the time.

Just 1 percent of water samples collected from Chicago's Juneway Beach Park, 7751 N. Eastlake Terrace, exceeded the BAV, making it the least contaminated beach analyzed in the report. Click through to see how other Illinois beaches fared.

Given the dense population of the Chicago area, Bramble said it is not surprising that E. coli is showing up in beach water.

"Really, the big thing is that until they can figure out a way to prevent overflows of the sewage system, we're always going to have incidences of high bacteria on the beach," she said. "There's been research done that shows that there's a low level of likelihood of getting sick [from bacteria in beach water], but if there were high levels of E. coli in the water, I wouldn't swim in it ... If I was going down to the beach, I'd want to know what the readings were." 

Click through for more on the report and the NRDC's guide to finding a clean beach.

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