Testing Our Waters


Pollution is distinctly nondiscriminatory—it ignores political, socio-economic and cultural boundaries.


The Natural Resource Defense Council’s (NRDC) annual survey of beach water quality, “Testing the Waters,” proves that point.

Illinois beaches with the worst contamination rates were on the north shore. In 2011, the worst beach in Illinois was Winnetka Elder Park Beach, which exceeded health standards 54 percent of the time. But it wasn’t alone — North Point Marina Beach (34%), Winnetka Centennial Dog Beach (29%), Highland Park Moraine Park Dog Beach (29%), Wilmette Gillson Park Dog Beach (29%), and Glencoe Park Beach (28%) all exceeded national standards more than 25 percent of the time.

And, overall, the Great Lakes region had the worst contamination rates — 11 percent of beachwater samples violated health standards in 2011; much higher than what we see on the coasts. Illinois ranked 28th out of 30 states in terms of beach water quality, with 12 percent of samples exceeding national standards.

The Village of Winnetka has made some improvements at Elder Park Beach, discovering more than a dozen spots where wastewater could have mixed with storm water before being released into Lake Michigan at Elder Lane. They also identified 15-16 homes where sanitary services lines were allowing waste to cross connect or infiltrate the storm sewers. The Village fixed those problems and, hopefully, residents are enjoying more opportunities to use Elder Park and other beaches during this hot summer.

But the threats of climate change, invasive species, and failed infrastructure keep our Lakes surprisingly dirty. But the good news is we can turn the tide against persistent water pollution by utilizing techniques such as green infrastructure, which captures rain where it falls, storing it or letting it filter back into the ground naturally. This keeps it from running off dirty streets and carrying pollution to the beach. And it keeps it from overloading sewage systems and triggering overflows.

By integrating green infrastructure with traditional types of infrastructure, i.e., sewers and pipes, north shore communities can better protect their residents and make tax dollars go farther. Trees not only capture rainwater (one mature tree can hold up to a 100 gallons of rain per storm event), but they cool streets, make commercial areas more attractive and clean the air. Each rain barrel can capture up to 55 gallons of water, which can then be used to water gardens, and reduces the amount of water flowing into our storm sewer system.

We don’t know yet how north shore beaches will fare in next year’s “Testing the Waters” report, but we hope that the good work in dealing with long-nagging infrastructure problems will go a long way towards turning some ugly contamination numbers into a success story–and integrating smart, attractive green infrastructure tools continue the trend so we can all benefit.