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Great Lakes Article:

Area beach closings up, officials mystified
By Karen Berkowitz
Pioneer Press Online

Swimming bans related to high bacteria levels were once a rarity at North Shore beaches. They often occurred when heavy rainstorms forced a release of untreated sewage into Lake Michigan.

But the frequency of such bans has stepped up this season as Evanston, Wilmette, Winnetka and Glencoe have adopted uniform E. coli testing procedures at the urging of the Illinois Department of Public Health.

Last year, Evanston beaches were closed only once for high bacteria levels - and, then, as an automatic response to the opening of the North Shore Channel locks during heavy rains to relieve pressure on sewers and minimize basement flooding.

So far this summer, there have been four days on which some or all of Evanston's five beaches were closed to swimmers due to high E. coli counts that showed up on water samples taken the previous day. On two recent days in July, the bans also extended to the city's dog beach.

The experience in Winnetka has been similar, officials said.

"There have been eight days on which at least one of our beaches was closed because of bacteria and two days on which all of the beaches were closed," said Liza McElroy, Winnetka director of parks and recreation.

Winnetka has five beaches, three of which are ordinarily open to swimmers.

"We are probably on a par with last year" in the number of closings, McElroy said, "but clearly within the last two to three years we have had more closings than previous to that. We still have another month of summer left.

"I'm not in a panic mode about this, but it is a very curious situation," McElroy said.

"Why on some days are two beaches closed and three open, or one closed and four open? Who knows?" said McElroy, who is mystified by the variances, as are other park operators on the North Shore.

Previously, Evanston, Wilmette, Winnetka and Glencoe conducted independent water quality tests and used locally set standards for determining when to close the beaches to swimmers.

With the exception of Glencoe last year, the suburbs used a test that counted fecal coliform bacteria, a broad group of organisms that includes some that are benign - and even beneficial - to humans.

This year, the Illinois Department of Public Health provided some grant funding to allow the suburbs to uniformly switch to a test for E. coli that the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency views as the most meaningful indicator of the kind of bacteria that sickens people.

"There is no historical data for E. coli at these North Shore beaches. We are starting to begin that database right now," said Lane Drager, environmental engineer with the Illinois Department of Public Health.

While there is no direct correlation between the old fecal coliform test and the new E. coli test, the switch effectively lowered the standard for beach closings, according to Drager.

On the recommendation of the EPA, park officials are banning swimming when E. coli colony counts measure 235 per 100 milliliters of lake water, about one-fifth of a pint.

Previously, the standard for closing a beach was 500 colonies of bacteria per 100 milliliters of water. Drager said roughly 400 of the 500 bacteria counts would have been E. coli, so the new test effectively lowered the standard from 400 to 235.

"There are a few more closures (on the North Shore) this year. It was expected, based on more stringent standards," Drager said. "In comparison to Chicago and Lake County, the North Shore beaches have had less closures."

Drager said the wet weather with high-intensity rainstorms also could be contributing to the high bacteria levels at some North Shore beaches.

"There are a lot of ravines where the water runs directly to their public beaches," he said. Likely sources of fecal matter at North Shore beaches include water running off parking lots or through ravines with pet and animal waste; older, leaking sewers; improperly combined sewer systems and seagulls.

The Wilmette beach at Gillson Park has been closed twice so far in 2003 due to high bacteria levels, once on June 20 and again on July 22, according to lakefront manager Betty Duguid.

Currently, water samples must incubate for 24 hours before the concentration of E. coli is known, meaning the beaches may be open to swimmers when bacteria levels are high and closed after the bacteria counts have subsided.

Winnetka recently purchased its own E. coli testing system with grant money and will begin conducting its own tests this week.

Unfortunately, said McElroy, "We didn't purchase the equipment that could have the test results back sooner, because," she added, "there isn't any."

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