Last Thursday, we went out to the north end of Lincoln Park–Wilson Avenue up to Ardmore Avenue–and happened across a nice new beach house the park district put up next to the Hollywood curve on Lake Shore Drive. In making use of the facility’s public convenience (restrooms), I was confronted by the sign above. I was simultaneously happy to be informed that I was making use of an environmentally aware facility and alarmed at the need to advise the public that water in the urinal is not safe for drinking. (I’m reliably informed the same sign was posted over the toilets in the women’s restroom. A Chicago Park District “beach ambassador” we met outside the beach house opined that the signs wouldn’t be there unless there had been an issue with patrons using the water for purposes other than flushing.)
The reason we would up talking to the beach ambassador was because I was checking out a diagram of the rainwater capture/retention/pumping apparatus posted outside the restroom. She explained she’s part of a campaign funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, through its Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, and by the park district to educate beachgoers about water quality issues and beach health. In fact, she asked us to sign a pledge to do our part to keep the beaches and adjacent waters clean. We did.
One of the campaign’s specific goals is getting gulls off the beaches. That’s because studies over the last decade have found that gull droppings are a major source of E. coli in beachfront waters and perhaps the bigges factor in the contamination that often shuts down Chicago beaches. Part of the evidence for the seagull factor is what happened to E. coli levels in South Side waters when trained border collies were used to chase gulls off the beaches. According to a Natural Resources Defense Council report issued earlier this summer, the number of water samples that exceeded state standards for E. coli fell sharply when dogs were on dawn-to-dusk patrol to keep the birds away; the E. coli levels rose again during a summer when the dogs were not on the beaches.
So the dogs were brought back. We heard that one of the places they’re on patrol is at 63rd Street, Jackson Park, one of the beaches with the highest incidence of closures due to near-shore bacterial contamination. We went down there early Friday afternoon. There weren’t a lot of people on the beach, and there were no gulls on the sand at all in the quarter-mile beachfront. After a couple minutes, we spotted a couple dogs with their handlers, watching for birds at opposite ends of the beach. We watched one of the dogs, and when a gull landed about 50 yards away, it locked on to it and advanced. The gull knew what was up and took off before the dog got close.
The dogs are only part of the solution to keeping the gulls away. The park district is trying to keep uncontained garbage off the beach by a thorough daily clean-up and by beachgoer education (below: a sign posted in the restroom at 63rd Street).