The Chicago Way of protecting citizens at the beach


Gary Wilson


The Chicago Park District did an excellent job of spin doctoring last week when it released its new beach water quality monitoring policy.

It was textbook strategy for  when you have news you want perceived as good news, lead with it.  Then bury the news that may not be as well-perceived and couch it in parsing language.

The district led with a press release titled “Chicago Park District Improves Beach Monitoring for 2012 Season.”

Pretty good. Who wouldn’t be for better beach monitoring.

The release said the district will now use predictive modeling versus actual testing to determine if water quality is good enough to allow your family to take a swim in Lake Michigan. The expected result is that there will be dramatically fewer swim bans this year.

Predictive modeling?

It sounds scientific so that’s good. It must predict what will happen before it happens. Maybe it’s like weather forecasting or political polling?

But it’s not that simple.

Even with modeling, determining water quality is an inexact science and there may be many days when authorities are not sure if it’s safe to swim. But they don’t like posting those bad for business swim bans so they eliminated a water quality standard they had been following. This shifted the responsibility to beachgoers to decide if the water is clean enough.

Here’s how they addressed it:

”…the Park District will no longer follow a three-tiered system for issuing swim advisories and bans based on water quality test results. Instead, like all other beaches in Illinois, the Park District will continue to follow USEPA guidance and issue swim advisories when E. coli results are above the federal water quality criteria. The Park District will no longer issue swim bans based on test results at a higher threshold.”


Sounds like the product of a meeting between policy staff, scientists and lawyers.

If you’re a mom or dad headed to the beach with little kids who can’t wait to dive in what does that  statement mean?

It means that the Park District wants you to make the call when its advisory system says “increased risk of illness may be present based on current monitoring for E. Coli bacteria.”

Is that reasonable and safe?

Should parents be signing up for a crash course in predictive modeling and water quality analysis before they let their kids swim in Lake Michigan? Isn’t it the Park District’s job to tell us if the water is safe?

I was confused and concerned so I posed a number of questions to the Chicago Park District’s Cathy Breitenbach, director of lakefront operations.

Questions like…

  • Is it fair and reasonable to ask parents to make an objective decision at the beach on yellow flag (advisory)days?
  • Kids tend to ingest more water than adults and also have more cuts and scrapes than adults that could make them vulnerable on yellow flag (advisory) days? Was that considered?
  • On yellow flag (advisory) days wouldn’t it be best to use precaution by saying we’re not quite sure if it’s safe, but we’re not going to take a chance?
  • Would you swim in the lake on yellow flag (advisory) days? Should a parent let their kids swim on yellow flag days?

These aren’t scientific, legal or policy questions. They’re questions designed to help beachgoers, especially parents, make healthy decisions for their families.

Breitenbach didn’t answer any of them.

Instead she responded with  a long narrative on the basis for the decision and a detailed scientific explanation of how water quality is measured. She added,  “We hope that this will actually cause the public to pay more attention to advisories.”

She didn’t respond to a follow up inquiry to my original questions.

It’s clear Breitenbach is selling predictive modeling as the answer to the long-standing problem of measuring water quality and she doesn’t want to deviate from that message.

But what about letting kids swim on days when advisories are posted?

Karen Hobbs said she probably wouldn’t allow her child into the water during a swim advisory according to a Chicago Tribune article on the new policy. Hobbs is a policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council and it’s her job to pay attention to these issues.

“Based on what I see with my 4-year-old, it seems children have an infinite capacity to swallow lake water.”

Hobbs was generally supportive of predictive modeling but told the Tribune when you give people a lot of information “you have to hope they know what to do with that information.”

 A better way… or the Chicago Way?

There was a better way for Chicago’s Park District to announce the policy change, a change that has  potential benefits for beachgoers.

  • Drop the policy wonk, scientific language which is how professionals talk to each other.
  • You’re communicating with people who have other responsibilities and only want to know if the water is clean enough for swimming.  They may perceive that’s your job and you’ve shifted it to them.
  • Tell them that water quality monitoring is an inexact science but you’re implementing a new method that shows promise for more accurately predicting when beaches should be closed.
  • Let them know that you’re no longer following a tougher standard because you question its accuracy. But there is some risk and they will be assuming it.
  • Emphasize that it’s important to pay attention to the swim advisories especially if they have kids. Swim bans that may have been in effect in the past but now aren’t even though water quality is the same.

That’s not hard and you can always put the scientific, lawyer-approved information in the fine print somewhere.

My cynical side sees another press release after the beach season in September. It says Chicago Park District’s scientific tool reduces swim bans and improves beach health.

If that happens let’s hope there is a solid basis for the claim and the health of beachgoers is the beneficiary.

Especially since the Park District’s Breitenbach dodged my simple, citizen-oriented questions.

But of course, that’s the Chicago Way.

5 thoughts on “The Chicago Way of protecting citizens at the beach

  1. After reflecting on my commentary please consider the following.

    In its press release announcing the swim ban policy the Chicago Park District referred to Chicago’s beaches as being “like all other beaches in Illinois.”

    Chicago has a scant 20 or so miles of Lake Michigan shore but there are 2.8 million residents in Chicago proper and “20 million” beach patrons visit “each summer” according to the Chicago Park District’s press release.

    Look at a map. This hardly makes Chicago “like all other beaches in Illinois.”

    Gary Wilson

  2. This takes the onus off the public agency and puts it squarely on the shoulders of the public. As time goes on this tactic will become more prevalent in all aspects of life. You pays your money and takes your chances.

  3. Thanks Joel..and you’re spot on related to “tracking and eliminating the source of the pollution.”

    Gary Wilson

  4. Hi Gary – you mention the word “standard” in your fourth bullet. It’s important for everyone to remember that water quality standards don’t change colors. Whether the flag is yellow, red or polka dot, whether you call it a swim ban or advisory, the water is sometimes dirtier than it should be. And tracking down and eliminating the source of pollution that threatens public health needs to be job one.

    Agreed that straightforward education at the beach is critical.

  5. So you want these people to be responsible, do thier job? Spin doctoring seems th be in vogue for everything Gary. The truth is a dying art. I drank lots of lake water as kid, that twitch ain’t that bad, and web feet help you swim faster!

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