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Where Not to Swim: Winnetka Tops the List

By JoshMogerman in News on Jul 2, 2011 7:00PM

39th Street Beach [jmogs]
Moving to the North Shore suburbs is supposed to afford you the best. The best schools. The best services. The best homes. That is perhaps part of the reason that many Chicagoans were left scratching their heads at the results of a national water quality study. Surely, the North Shore has the best beaches too, right?

Wrong. Two of Winnetka’s beaches rated at the bottom of not just Illinois’ beaches, but the nation’s. The Natural Resources Defense Council’s “Testing the Waters” report showed 61 percent of samples taken at Elder Park Beach and 49 percent of samples at Centennial Dog Beach exceed public safety standards for the E. coli bacteria.

It turns out that Winnetka is a poster boy for the issues highlighted in the beach report: stormwater runoff and inadequate water infrastructure. The beaches are located near a bluff that allows stormwater to flow directly down to Lake Michigan. And a sanitary line carrying more than half of the leafy suburb’s stormwater runs through a beach Pier. Oops. The suburb is aware of the issue and has been working to address them, but you might want to keep that in mind over the hot holiday weekend.

In the City, nobody expects Lake Michigan to be pristine, but we cannot gloat too much. South Shore, Rainbow Beach, Calumet South Beach, Jackson Park Beach, Montrose Beach and 31st Street Beach all had bacteria counts that exceeded health standards 20% of the time or more. But the report gives the Park District high marks for its testing and reporting regimes -- and notes that the seemingly goofy use of dogs to scare gulls away is actually working well. (Eds. Note: I'm also available for hire to chase seagulls on the beach, at a minimal cost. S.A.)

So, buck up Chicago. Revel in the relative cleanliness of your beaches. And make sure to watch the lifeguard chair---the report has a list of really gross illnesses that could result from ignoring those red flags flying on bad beach days. According to the Park District site, they should be flying at Montrose and South Shore Beaches today, where a swim ban is in place based on water quality issues (there are advisories at Rainbow, Leone and Howard beaches too). You’ve been warned.

Sunday Update: Chicago beaches are free of swim bans and advisories today. Beaches are open to swimmers from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Go get wet.