New system to test beach water quality

July 11, 2008 3:58:58 PM PDT
The Chicago Park District is trying a new system that will test water quality more rapidly at its public beaches. SwimCast provides immediate results on water bacteria levels so officials know right away whether a swim ban is needed. "I've come to (12th Street) beach pretty much every week since the summer started," said Jeff Shanks, beach fan.

Shanks isn't the only person who spent part of this muggy Friday cooling off at 12th Street beach. Both kids and adults took a dip in Lake Michigan, because the Chicago Park District gave the green light -- or in this case, flag -- indicating it's safe to go in the water.

Closed Thursday was Rainbow Beach, which was under a swim ban because of high bacteria levels. So far, there have been 13 swim bans at various beaches this year, but that's less than last year at this time, when there were 15.

"Usually, we call them before to make sure the beach is open so we can go swimming and we don't have to come back," said Miguel Rodriguez, beach fan.

Now, the Chicago Park District is hoping to find out even faster if the water is safe. They're trying out new equipment called a SwimCast modeling system, a pole with sensors that take readings of the water and air.

"Once it takes all of these data samples, and it's telling you the wind frequency, speeds, water temperature, lots of dense data, it goes into the software and computer at the Chicago Park District's administrative office," said Ellen Sargent, Department of Natural Resources.

That data then makes a prediction as to whether the water is fit for swimming. It's a test with instant results, unlike the current method, which takes a day for the results to come back.

SwimCast is being tried out at 63rd Street beach because it had the most closings last year. But, so far this year, it's been open all summer. The district credits environmental initiatives, like using border collies to patrol the beach to keep the gulls away, that has meant lower bacteria levels.

Overall, it's an effort to keep the water safe and to notify the public quickly if it isn't.

"Overall it is still a pleasant visit because you have the view and everything, and once you come with family and friends it turns out to be a good time," said Pamela Bailey, beach fan.

The park district is still experimenting with SwimCast, so it will be used in tandem with the current testing method this summer.. If it turns out to be a success, SwimCast will be used by itself at other beaches next summer.


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