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Chicago has many attractions: deep-dish pizza, President Barack Obama’s home, Buckingham Fountain and blues music.

But most people don’t think of the city when they hear the word, “beaches.”

Managed by the Chicago Park District, the 24 designated swim beaches along 26 miles of lakefront attract 25 million visitors during the summer months. The park district has become an aggressive beach manager over the years, implementing several beach-management practices to ensure the beaches stay safe and clean.

Flag Notification

For starters, the park district monitors the water quality at the swimming beaches with a three-tier alert system to issue swim bans and inform beachgoers of bacteria levels. The Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) support the notification system that calls for a swim advisory to be issued when readings of the indicator bacteria Escherichia coli (E. coli) falls between a certain point. E. coli is not harmful, but its presence indicates that other pathogens may be in the water.

Although many beach managers in other cities only test water quality once a week (the minimum recommended by the USEPA), the park district decided to use a more aggressive approach and test the swimming waters five days during the week, with necessary testing measures taken on the weekends if a swim ban or advisory is posted on a Friday.

The park district uses a flag-notification system to inform patrons:

• Green--swimming is permitted

• Yellow--an advisory is in effect and caution is advised

• Red--there is a swim-ban in effect.

Recently, a texting service was introduced to inform beachgoers of the swim status. Additionally, the information can be accessed on the district’s beach hotline as well as its Web site, Facebook and Twitter.

Fighting The Birds

There are several theories on the causes of high E. coli bacteria counts in the lake water, which include high temperatures, heavy rainfall, low lake levels, the shape of the beach and gull waste.

With this in mind and by collaborating with beach managers throughout the Great Lakes region, the park district began implementing various beach-mitigation initiatives to reduce probable bacteria sources.

Recently, the district’s board of commissioners passed an ordinance that bans feeding any bird, wild animal or stray animal at any beach. One of the suspected major causes of beach water contamination is waste generated by ring-billed gulls. Research has shown a strong link between the presence of these birds and swim bans and advisories at beaches. Other Great Lakes beach managers also have implemented such bans.

The park district has been aware of the connection for quite some time, and has done its best to deal with the gull population. In 2007, for example, the park district and the city’s Department of Environment partnered to introduce the Ring-Billed Gull Management Program. Biologists from the United States Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services coated gull eggs with corn oil, which limited air movement through the shells and prevented the eggs from hatching. The oil does not harm adult gulls or other wildlife, and is approved by the Humane Society.

In 2006, the park district contracted with a company called Wild Goose Chase that stations border collies at beaches with notoriously high levels of E. coli. The collies--trained and monitored by professional handlers--prevent ring-billed gulls from landing on the beach. The collies are also trained to know the difference between a ring-billed gull and a migrating bird. The dogs are predominantly stationed at the city’s 63rd Street Beach from dawn until dusk every day during beach season.

Also in 2006, the city implemented a waste-recycling program with weighted containers that helped minimize the food sources that attract gulls. The city took the initiative a step further when it introduced “BigBelly” trash containers in 2007. The solar-powered trash compactors support fuel conservation and decreased emissions, but more importantly, they keep the gulls out.

Winning Technology

But the presence of E. coli could not be blamed solely on the gulls. In 2009, the city’s beach managers were the first to use a new cutting-edge technology to help clean the beaches. A set of two new surf rakes--named the Chicago Rakes--were used on all of the major beaches and were specially engineered for the park district.

Manufactured and designed by H. Barber & Sons Inc., the surf rakes are made from titanium metal and act like agricultural cultivators used to plow fields, digging 4 inches into the beach sand, whereas the former comb only skimmed the surface at a quarter of an inch. Studies suggest that near shore, sand helps cultivate and trap E. coli that eventually may be leached into recreational waters. The Chicago Rakes dig deeper into the sand, exposing the bacteria to UV light and oxygen, which helps decrease bacteria that may affect swimming waters.

The park district also is installing predictive-modeling systems at select beaches, which record environmental conditions such as wave height, wind speed and rainfall. The data collected will be used to build models to predict water quality, which will allow the park district to make decisions about swim bans in real time. The current water-testing method gives results in 18 to 24 hours.

A Little Help

Over the years, obtaining grants has been another important factor in the battle to maintain the beaches. For instance, the park district water-quality testing was in part funded by USEPA Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health (BEACH) Act funding, which is awarded to eligible coastal and Great Lakes states, territories and tribes to develop and use beach-monitoring and notification programs. This grant is administered by the IDPH. In 2008, the park district was awarded $80,000.

In 2010, the district was awarded three beach-related grants through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, totaling $594,760. A portion of the grant will be used to install a comprehensive beach communications program. The other portion of the grant will go toward the development of the predictive-modeling systems at four beaches, sanitary surveys of select beaches and an in-depth investigation of storm-water impacts at specific beaches.

Zvezdana Kubat is the assistant press secretary for the Chicago Park District. She can be reached via e-mail at Zvezdana.Kubat@ChicagoParkDistrict.com.

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