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Illinois Beaches: Learning lessons to clean the Fresh Coast

Henry Henderson

Posted June 30, 2014 in Curbing Pollution, Living Sustainably

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Ohio Street beach photo by jmogs via Flickr

A day at the beach is a situation when many people become painfully aware of being directly confronted by water pollution: sadly, it is due to discomforting results of interaction with contaminated water. Kids with tummy aches. Or parents with worse discomfort… It’s all too common, as shown in NRDC’s latest Testing the Waters report which shows 1 of every 10 water quality samples at America’s beaches exceed health standards. In the Great Lakes, the problem is worse

This year, the report used the EPA’s more protective Beach Action Value standard and it shows Illinois beaches in the middle of the pack nationally. The level of contamination is stubbornly consistent, but the tougher value sends a lot of states tumbling down the list.

Beach contamination is a complicated issue—like the broader issue of water pollution in general. Contamination can come from many sources, and, while it’s often difficult to pinpoint, stormwater runoff and the release of raw sewage into our waterways during combined sewer overflows are two primary causes. But in this neck of the woods, we know there are huge issues associated with growing climate impacts, continued invasive species impacts that are literally transforming the Lakes’ ecosystem and failing infrastructure that continues to unnecessarily pollute the Lakes’ with urban slobber.

And those climate impacts will continue to worsen, making this issue bigger and bigger. That means we need to think differently about infrastructure to limit problems—after all, that is the factor in the mix we have the most control over and one of the biggest sources of this mess. It’s not just fixing the broken and outmoded stuff. But also thinking anew about how to deal with the rain coming in ever-more-violent bursts to prevent it from overwhelming storm water systems and complicating the problem. The City of Chicago has long embraced the use of green infrastructure to address this issue: natural systems that collect, hold and filter rainwater where it falls to help unburden our sewers. And the Chicago Park District is increasingly deploying green infrastructure as a beach buffer to help protect swimmers from runoff that might otherwise pollute the beaches. That is an example of doing it right.

But further north we get a very good look at the other side of the ledger.

Winnetka is a lovely community north of Chicago. And as we noted in last year’s report, it boasts a success story that highlights the incredible impact local infrastructure can have on beach water quality. Winnetka’s Elder Park Beach was plagued by pollution and stood as one of Illinois’s nastiest beaches despite being in the midst of one of the state’s most affluent communities. The Village worked hard to find the source of the issue and identified some homes that had not been tied into their wastewater system and were dumping directly into Lake Michigan (yes, yuck). Once Winnetka dealt with the issue, the Elder Park Beach saw real improvement in its water quality (though it should be noted all is not golden in this stretch of shoreline—it five communities along the north shore suburbs of Chicago are so impaired by e. Coli nastiness that the state has designated these waters too polluted to meet Illinois’’ water quality standards).

But, the Village has not embraced that win.

Rather than taking the lesson about tightening up local infrastructure to limit waste going into the Lake and replicate the success we see here in Chicago with green infrastructure, they are doubling down on the dirty. The Village, despite persistent objections from many in the community, seems dead set upon building a massive tunnel that could eject huge quantities of runoff into Lake Michigan, messing not only with their own beaches but potentially plenty of others along the southern tip of the Lake. It remains to be seen if they will follow through—or if the state will permit such a wrongheaded concept as the engineering studies (and all the regulatory paperwork) are not in yet. It is an issue we will be watching closely and hope that cooler heads in town will prevail, even as many complain that the Village staunchly refuses to support green infrastructure tools.

North Shore swimmers beware…

Ohio Street Beach image by jmogs via Flickr.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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