Credit: Mina Bloom/Block Club Chicago

HUMBOLDT PARK — Three years ago, Humboldt Park’s beach was closed down and deemed too expensive to survive.

Community protests revived it but by 2017 the water was too dirty to safely swim in for nearly two-thirds of the summer, with bird feces and algae blamed for driving up bacteria to unsafe levels.

But the city’s only inland beach made a big comeback this summer, thanks to a combination of weapons to keep the water clean.

This summer the water came in at unsafe bacteria levels only 24 percent of the days measured (from Memorial Day to Labor Day), according to a Block Club analysis of city data.

In other words, the water was safe more than 75 percent of the time.

That’s compared to last summer when the water came in at unsafe levels 65 percent of the same days measured. 

It appears the Chicago Park District’s improvement plan is working.

Last summer, park district officials told DNAinfo the bacteria problem was likely due to bird feces that hadn’t washed away. They laid out a plan that included planting tall grass to keep the geese out.

The park district has done that and more, according to spokeswoman Michele Lemons. In partnership with Integrated Lakes Management, the agency is treating the water with products like Cutrine Plus and Pondzilla to reduce algal growth.

It’s also working with the United States Dept. of Agriculture on an egg oiling program to reduce the number of newly hatched goslings at the beach. Egg oiling is a process in which crews temporarily remove fertilized eggs from the bird nest and terminate embyro development — all without causing damage to the environment.

Lastly, it’s stopped using biosolids in surrounding watershed. Biosolids are a byproduct of wastewater treatment, which can be used to improve soil. There’s a debate as to whether biosolids pose health risks.

Whatever the reason, the dramatic improvement is welcome news to folks like Juanita Irizarry, who fought to reopen the beach in 2016.

“As a lifelong Humboldt Park neighbor myself and someone who participated in advocacy for the reopening of the Humboldt Park beach even before I became the executive director of Friends of the Parks, I am very pleased about the progress with water quality at the Humboldt Park beach since last summer,” Irizarry said in a written statement.

“This is a great example of the importance of community organizing to identify, advocate around, and keep tabs on problems and solutions in our parks.”

Humboldt Park lagoon is the city’s only inland beach. Credit: Chicago Park District

Under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s standards, water is safe if Enterococci levels come in below 1,000 calibrator cell equivalents per 100 milliliters.

Enterococci is a sign that fecal matter or bacteria associated with fecal matter is in the water. The bacteria can lead to gastrointestinal illnesses like giardia and salmonella. Children, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems are at greater risk for such illnesses.

The city uses colored flags to warn swimmers about high levels of bacteria and dangerous swimming conditions.

The green flag means there are no water quality or weather issues and it’s totally safe to swim. The yellow “swim advisory” flag means swimming is permitted, but caution is advised due to high bacteria levels or unpredictable weather. And the red flag, the worst of the three, means swimming is not permitted due to dangerous weather like rough surf or lightning.

Last summer, the Humboldt Park beach was by far the most bacteria-ridden in the city. At one point, it reached Enterococci levels nearly 18 times safe levels as advised by the EPA. The beach was above safe Enterococci levels for at least 31 consecutive days.

The city publicly shares data on 20 of its 27 beaches.

The Northwest Side beach came in fourth for most bacteria-ridden beaches in the city this summer. It isn’t far behind top-ranked 63rd Street beach in terms of the number of unsafe days (25 and 30, respectively), but it’s still a major improvement over last summer. 

After 63rd Street beach came Calumet beach, then South Shore, Humboldt Park and, finally, Rogers Park and Juneway tied for fifth.

A ‘long legacy’ of poor water quality

When it was built in 1973, the inland beach project was the first of its kind in Chicago, and maybe the country.

The beach went on to become a Humboldt Park staple for 40 years, an oasis for Northwest Side families who don’t live close to Lake Michigan. Then, in 2015, the city shut down the beach, saying it didn’t have the $1 million needed to maintain it.

After public outcry, the city reopened a newly-renovated beach a year later using $1 million in taxpayer dollars.

At the time officials said they hoped to make improvements to the beach, which they acknowledged had long been plagued by poor water quality due to its shallow depth and design. But their efforts fell short in 2017.

“The lagoon has a long legacy of people complaining about it not being particularly clean,” Irizarry said. “For some people, it’s not an issue. For others, they say they don’t use it for that reason. Those are personal choices.”

What’s most important, the Friends of the Parks executive director added, is that residents know what’s going on.

“I think there’s some possibility that it will never be as clean as the lakefront, but that’s why it’s so important to have community education and partnership,” Irizarry said.

The Humboldt Park Advisory Council declined to be interviewed for this story.

This report was produced with help from Josefa Velasquez, investigative reporter at Sludge, a news website focused on money in politics.

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Logan Square, Humboldt Park & Avondale reporterrnrnmina@blockclubchi.orgnnLogan Square, Humboldt Park & Avondale Twitter @mina_bloom_

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