New water testing model debuts at 63rd Street beach

A pilot program to provide rapid testing of beach water for harmful E. coli  bacteria went into effect for the city's 63rd  Street beach today.
The solar-powered testing system, funded in part by an $80,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, will measure bacteria levels, turbidity, temperature and water depth and transmit hourly data by modem to the Chicago Park District Administration Building.

The system will allow parks department officials to assess the level of E. coli and other contaminants in the water every four hours.

The current system requires 16-24 hours before bacteria levels can be determined, according to park district spokeswoman Zvezdana Kubat.

The 63rd Street beach is one of the city's most difficult to maintain because its shallow water and enclosed shape between two breakwaters inhibits water circulation, Kubat said.  Sources of E. coli contamination include sewage overflows, storm runoff and gull droppings.

In 2006, the beach was closed 36 times for unsafe levels of bacteria, according to the EPA. Last year, the beach was closed 18 times, including one 13-day stretch from Aug. 6-18.

"This is the beach that has had the most closures because of bacteria counts," says 5th Ward Alderman Leslie Hairston, whose ward includes the 63rd Street beach.

Officials hope the improved accuracy expected under the new method will help to reduce the frequency of swimming bans on the city's 23 beaches.

"Our beaches are a great resource and this grant will ensure continued monitoring of Chicago's beach water quality and public notification when the water quality is in question," said Dr. Damon T. Arnold, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, whose department administered the grant.

At a beachside press conference where the system was announced today, parks department officials also outlined a series of other steps designed to reduce beach contamination:

  • Rescued Border Collies, accompanied by trainers, will continue, for the third year, to patrol beaches from dawn to dusk, chasing off the ring-billed gulls which contribute to the high levels of E. coli.  
  • "BigBelly" solar powered wireless trash compacters are being installed at select beaches to keep animals from getting to the buffet of garbage inside.
  • The use of MiraGreen, an organic cleaning solution, for underpasses to decrease storm water runoff which can contain harmful chemicals.
  • 12-inch beach rakes will begin to sweep beaches next week, digging deeper into the sand as a means to reduce the E. coli trapped and leaching into the water.
  • Lidded recycling and waste containers along the lakefront will reduce food sources that attract gulls.
Beachgoers can get up-to-date information on which beaches are open for swimming by visiting the park district website.