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Park District Won't Close Beaches For E. Coli Contamination

By Chris Bentley in News on May 23, 2012 7:20PM

Photo Credit: Mike Travis

Red flags be damned — if you want to take a dip in Lake Michigan when its Escherichia coli count exceeds federal safety standards, Chicago lifeguards will no longer stop you.

Swim season officially opens Friday and runs through Sept. 3. This year the city’s Park District will do away with swim bans based on E. coli counts, which last year contributed to 36 beach closings. The methods used to measure contamination by the potentially harmful bacteria may have been overly conservative, said Cathy Breitenbach, director of lakefront operations for the Park District.

But swim bans will still be issued when there is sewage overflow into Lake Michigan. As with many cities in the Great Lakes region, Chicago’s combined sewer system mixes water flushed down storm drains in the street with wastewater from homes and businesses. Stormwater pipes gather polluting runoff, while wastewater contains disease-causing pathogens and fecal coliform bacteria. Rainfall as little as two-thirds of an inch per day can force overflows into Lake Michigan.

The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District dumped nearly 19 billion gallons of bacteria-laden storm water into the lake between 2007 and 2010, according to records obtained by the Tribune.

The Park District will still supply water quality information and advisories for beachgoers. Federal grant money to clean up Lake Michigan could help long-term prospects for the largest body of freshwater entirely within the U.S. But for now, if you’re content with setting your own E. coli limit, then this is your summer.