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Great Lakes Article:

Seagull droppings top source of beach bacteria, study finds
By Michael Hawthorne
Chicago Tribune
02/16/04

Those pesky seagulls begging for french fries and other handouts along the shores of Lake Michigan are also responsible for the high bacteria levels that are closing beaches.

In a study to be released Monday, Lake County officials used DNA to identify seagull droppings as the top source of E. coli bacteria in water samples collected last summer. Human waste, most likely from sewage spills, came in second.

The study is the latest attempt to grapple with a high number of swimming bans every summer. There were 178 beach closings in Lake County last year. Chicago had 130.

Seagulls, lured by abundant food and attractive nesting grounds, are increasingly common at beaches along the Great Lakes. Many have become so addicted to human handouts that they no longer are afraid of people. Some birds are so aggressive that throwing them a fry or a piece of bread is the only way to get rid of them--for a moment.

Reducing litter, in particular food and food packaging, is considered one of the best ways to keep beaches clean. But it's not the only solution. A panel of federal, state and local officials that reviewed the study said more also needs to be done to eliminate sewage spills into Lake Michigan.

"It's obviously more than the birds," said state Sen. Susan Garrett (D-Lake Forest), who secured the funding for the $30,000 study.

In July, power failures at pumping stations in Lake Bluff and Lake Forest allowed more than 350,000 gallons of raw sewage to spill into the lake. Human waste also occasionally escapes treatment when heavy rains overwhelm the region's aging sewers, or when sewage seeps out from leaking pipes.

Officials from the North Shore Sanitary District welcomed the new study because it confirmed their long-standing belief that sewage isn't the only cause of beach closures.

"We know more needs to be done," said Brian Jensen, the district's general manager. "But this study suggests we need a more comprehensive effort to get these bacteria counts down."

To conduct the study, volunteers and local officials scooped up bird droppings and pried open sewer covers to sample raw sewage. They collected water from shallow shore areas, where disease-causing E. coli bacteria typically are highest.

The results are similar to another study conducted last year by a researcher from Purdue University's Calumet campus in Hammond. At the time, Garrett and others questioned the researcher's conclusion that seagulls were responsible for unacceptably high E. coli levels in Lake Michigan.

Officials who reviewed the latest study are recommending that all Lake County beaches have covered garbage cans that are emptied at least twice a day. They also want more study of beach grooming practices that could reduce levels of bacteria that thrive in warm, wet sand.

To limit human sources of bacteria, local sewers should be inspected for illegal discharges, the group said.

"The reality is we have a number of known sources of bacteria that we can do something about," said Joel Brammeier, manager of habitat programs at the Lake Michigan Federation.

Researchers are working on methods to alert the public more quickly about water contamination. Current methods force health officials to wait a day before learning the results.

In an attempt to predict when bacteria levels will be high, officials plan to install equipment this summer that will monitor wind, sunlight, rainfall and temperature at Lake Forest Beach and the South Beach at Illinois Beach State Park. A similar system tested at Chicago's 63rd Street Beach four years ago predicted unacceptable E. coli levels 86 percent of the time.

"We still have a lot of work to do," said Jack Darin, director of Illinois' Sierra Club chapter. "It's sad when we have to think twice about having a fun day at the beach."

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