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News / City Life

Chicago beaches just got safer with faster water-quality testing

Chicago beaches just got safer with faster water-quality testing
Photograph: Anthony Soave

Safer swimming is what Chicagoans can expect this summer after the Chicago Park District approved a new plan to test water quality at city beaches much faster than it had previously. On Wednesday, the Park District board approved a contract with the University of Illinois at Chicago for water sample testing services at as many as 20 city beaches per day.

Researchers at the UIC School of Public Health will perform DNA-based tests for enterococci—a group of bacteria that can indicate whether waters contain other disease-causing microbes that are more difficult to detect. The new test, which was already being conducted at nine city beaches, yields results in 3-4 hours, according to UIC. This quicker method will significantly improve the park district’s efforts to warn beachgoers of any potential hazards, considering that water conditions can change notably from day to day.

"The old method was just as accurate in terms of results. But by the time you get the results, the conditions would change,” Cathy Breitenbach, director of cultural and natural resources at the Park District, told the Chicago Tribune. “They didn't reflect the current conditions of the beach."

Currently, the test used by the park district to monitor E. coli levels at most of the city’s 31 public beaches takes 24 to 48 hours to complete. That means beachgoers could have access to water with elevated levels of the harmful bacteria before the district is made aware. Furthermore, water quality at the time the samples were collected is likely to have already changed by time test results are in.

Notifications about water quality and beach conditions are passed on to the public primarily through a system of color-coded flags set up at city beaches. Green indicates good water quality, yellow means you can swim but either unpredictable weather conditions or elevated bacteria levels are present, and red means swimming is banned due to dangerous weather or water quality. You can also visit the Park District's beach website or call the beach hotline, 312-742-3224 for updates.

The partnership with UIC initially began in 2015 with water testing at five beaches per day. In 2016, UIC began testing water from nine beaches, five days per week. Under the new agreement, UIC will test water samples from 18-20 beaches per day, seven days a week.

The 2017 beach season in Chicago officially begins May 26 and runs through September 4.

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