Mitigating Murky Water

By Brendan Daley

As one of the largest park systems in the country, the Chicago Park District continues to set its sights on ways to maintain water quality at its 26 miles of lakefront, 24 beaches, and 10 harbors. Through a number of initiatives that prevent pollution and work to protect public health, the efforts seem to be paying off, as there has been a reduced number of swim bans and swim advisories at the beaches.

Water quality is generally impacted by weather, wildlife, and people’s behavior. Since these beaches are rarely impacted by sewage and there are almost no significant outflows, the district focuses on what it can impact—people and wildlife—while sampling the water to determine the levels of potential contaminants.

Limiting Litter
Controlling and reducing trash is a top priority for beach health and cleanliness. First, sand groomers are employed daily at each beach during the season, which runs from Memorial Day to Labor Day. The groomers not only pick up litter from the beach, but also turn the sand, exposing it to the sun and air, which reduces the amount of bacteria. All of the beaches have ample trash and recycling containers with lids to prevent scavenging from animals and birds. These containers are removed from the beaches daily—and as many as three times a day in the summer.

Sampling For Safety
Water-quality standards at beaches are under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Several criteria monitor for E. coli bacteria—an indicator of water quality—for primary-contact recreational water users, such as swimmers, bathers, and surfers. Generally, poor water quality results from increased amounts of fecal matter in the water, from both humans and wildlife. The district tests the water 5 days a week, and on weekends as often as necessary during the swim season. The EPA criteria call for testing at least once a week. The challenge with this testing is that the EPA-approved method takes up to 18 hours to finalize results. So when the findings are posted, they are already a day old. As a result, in 2012 the district started a predictive-modeling effort in partnership with the U.S. Geological Survey and a Great Lakes Restoration Grant from the EPA. With this grant, the district was able to install weather-tracking equipment at several beaches that provides real-time data. These data, from sampling and modeling, are used to make predictions of E. coli amounts, and the results are posted at the beach and on the website.

If the results exceed the EPA’s criteria, a swim advisory is posted, using a flag system. It then becomes the beachgoer’s decision whether to enter the water during an advisory.

Ambassador Outreach
It’s important that beachgoers understand they are not merely going to a beach, but to an ecosystem that has a human impact. In 2011, the district implemented a program of beach ambassadors who visit beaches on days of highest usage, typically weekends. The ambassadors promote the importance of not feeding the birds and ensuring that garbage and recyclables are put in the proper containers. The ambassadors also talk about water quality and help interpret the E. coli numbers for swimmers. This outreach was a crucial missing piece of the water-quality puzzle. Since lifeguards have a specific job at the beach, they are not able to interact with the public. Ambassadors engage the public, promote good behavior, and collect data. Typically summer interns, the ambassadors are also a low-cost, high-impact way to get the word out.

Bad News Birds
By conducting DNA studies, the district was able to identify congregating birds as the largest single source of fecal-matter contamination, in particular, ring-billed gulls and Canada geese. The district employs various methods, from low-cost stationary bird deterrents, like mirrors and wires, to more costly efforts, like trained dogs that chase birds away. These methods have definitely improved water quality.

A Plea To Boaters
The district also operates the largest municipally managed harbor system in the country, with 10 harbors and almost 5,000 slips. Many of the harbors are located adjacent to a beach, which is why in 2011 the district began a boater outreach. A postcard is distributed to each boater during registration for the season. Tips are provided on how boaters can be more environmentally friendly, from the cleaners used on board to the way trash and recycling are collected and disposed. This outreach, a Green Marinas program, was modeled after similar programs around the country.

All of these efforts, from water sampling and predictive-modeling to chasing away birds to engaging beachgoers and boat owners, are a failsafe way to improve water quality as well as communicate effectively with the public.

Brendan Daley , CPRP, LEED AP, is the Director of Strategic Development for the Chicago Park District. Reach him at .