Clean beaches and water free from sewage: It’s up to us


Gary Wilson


Twenty million patrons visit Chicago’s beaches each summer.

That factoid from the Chicago Park District’s website got my attention earlier this year as I was researching another commentary.

I wondered, did I read that right, 20 million? I checked the site again because the number was far more than I would have guessed. It was right.

On reflection it starts to make sense.

Chicago, the city, has nearly 3 million residents and greater Chicago, including contiguous areas of southern Wisconsin and northwest Indiana, bring the total to nearly 10 million. That’s a massive number of people crowding the shores of southern Lake Michigan.

For perspective check this NASA video from space at night. The lights of greater Chicago appear prominently in the background from Oklahoma City and then dwarf every other metropolitan area in the Great Lakes region.

I mention this because of the stressors the dense population brings to the shores of Lake Michigan and its waters, generally known in technical terms as the nearshore ecosystem.

What are those stressors?

  • Think 6.5 billions of sewage pollution dumped into Lake Michigan in 2010 according to a report from Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk’s office. The cause: Inadequate infrastructure that can’t keep up with demand during heavy rains. In 2011 the number was 2.3 billion gallons.
  •  Kirk’s report gave Illinois’ beaches a “D” rating, saying that contamination threatens public health.
  • Think of the runoff from roads and parking lots. Forty-two percent   of Cook County (greater Chicago) is paved. That means rain isn’t absorbed but flows into storm water drains and takes pollutants with it which end up in our waterways.

Toss in pollution from heavy industry south of downtown Chicago and northwest Indiana and that’s a lot of stress on a nearshore ecosystem that is only about 80 miles long.

That’s measuring and monitoring, the easy part. We know what the problems are and we also have a pretty good idea about solutions.

Implementing solutions well, we’re not as good at that.

Seemingly every year Kirk and a few of his Illinois colleagues in Congress introduce legislation to end sewage pollution in the region by 2031. The bill never garners regional support though and serves more to highlight the problem rather than generating a solution.

In fact, already inadequate federal funding to deal with sewer infrastructure problems faces cuts in the 2013 proposed federal budget.

Chicago, like many cities, has a green roof initiative to help minimize runoff from heavy rains. People increasingly use rain barrels to capture all that water. But for the near term these initiatives will only make an impact at the margins.

What about support from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, the Obama administration’s effort to restore the Great Lakes?

Good news, the initiative says “promoting near shore health by protecting watersheds from polluted run-off” is one of five “urgent issues.”

To date, projects have focused on beach health and agricultural runoff which demonstrates progress. But the task is daunting. And by design the restoration initiative doesn’t address sewage dumping and overflows.

Federal and local initiatives to minimize our nearshore foot print will continue in some form depending on the will of our politicians. But we shouldn’t wait for them.

Here’s what we urban dwellers can do.

  • Demand federal and local funding for sewage infrastructure projects and tell elected officials that we’re looking for solutions that aren’t 20 years in the future. Sales point: Jobs will be created, good high-paying construction jobs.
  • Beach health monitoring projects are necessary but demand that responsible agencies find and work to eradicate the source of the problems too.
  • Be a responsible urban citizen. Tell your town to construct roads and sides with surfaces that absorb rainwater. Get that rain barrel and brag about it. Tell your neighbors they need to get one too, they’re not expensive. Help get cars off the roads by taking the train and riding your bike. Chicago has a nascent but growing bike culture and the city is supporting it with more and improved bike lanes.

And a memo for Great Lakes agency staff.

How about coming up with a citizen-oriented, user-friendly name to replace nearshore ecosystem health?  It sounds like insider talk and is therefore exclusionary.

I mentioned it in a discussion with relatives recently who asked about my next topic. I was greeted by blank stares. I took the cue and said healthy beaches and getting the sewage out of our lakes and rivers. That they understand.

Like most Great Lakes projects making our beaches and near shore waterways safe and healthy will be a marathon versus a sprint.

The process has barely begun but how it finishes will be up to us. We do want clean beaches and drinking water, don’t we?


5 thoughts on “Clean beaches and water free from sewage: It’s up to us

  1. I’ve where to may planktivores increase algae blooms. In one lake they addressed the phosphorus part, but also increased predators to reduce planltivores, and even stocked zooplankton, it worked. We have way too many planktivores in Lake Michigan, all from out of town.

  2. Harold, my sentiments exactly. With the human population at 7 Billion and counting, and all of them with aspirations for a better life, there is very little we can do to mitigate the damage being done to this planet. Political institutions world-wide are powerless to deal with this population bomb for several reasons, religion being one of the more prominent. Even in our relatively enlightened society there are forces which are using religion to obscure this problem and deny family planning and birth control options to other people.

  3. Surfaces that store rain water products are surfaces that release oil into drainage systems. Separating sewerage systems from drainage systems allows sewage to be treated properly, and allows drainage to flow to drainage basins where oil floats to the top and debris settles. It is at this point that the basins can be cleaned as they drain into public waters and made into something easily filtered for drinking. By treating sewage properly, you’ll have a reduction of quagga and zebra mussels in the Great Lakes, and less asian carp in the Illinois River. There will also be less plankton for young bass to feed on, but the water will be cleaner. It is at this point that you can try to balance an ecosystem helplessly dependant on man.

  4. Yep, there are clearly a number of token things we can do which make us feel good about ourselves. But until we address the root of all of our environmental problems–overpopulation–we will never truly be able to restore the natural wonders we are blessed with. Dealing with population issues is a long-term endeavor, but we need to start sooner than later. Why has overpopulation essentially disappeared from environmental discussions? In my short life time, the U.S. population has more than doubled and the world population has tripled. What good does it do to cut car emissions in half–or any other environmental goal–if we double the population?

    Sadly, we continue to reward those who use up the most resources. On welfare? The more children you have, the more you get paid. Have ten kids? Great–we’ll give you tax deductions so you pay little or no taxes. Granted, people usually don’t have kids to avoid taxes or get more benefits, but our whole system is geared towards subsidizing and rewarding personal decisions. We need to remove those incentives and reinstate discussions about the perils of overpopulation. We are witnessing the greatest mass extinction since the dinosaurs, yet we are helpless to deal with habitat loss while we breed this planet into oblivion.

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