Beach goers braving the waters of Lake Michigan at Porter Beach. | John Robbins~for Sun-Times Media
What are Indiana’s Water Quality Standards for E. coli?
Indiana’s Water Quality Standards (327 IAC 2-1.5-8 (e)), specify that for full body contact, E. coli counts shall not exceed 235 colonies per 100 milliliters as a one-time sample or 126 colonies per 100 milliliters as a geometric mean of not less than 5 samples equally spaced over a 30 day period. “Full body contact” means the direct contact with the water to the point of complete submergence (i.e., swimming).
Source: National Park Service, http://www.nps.gov/indu/planyourvisit/beach_monitoring.htm
Check Before You Go
Beachgoers can look online at extranet.idem.in.gov/beachguard/ before going to any Northwest Indiana beach to see its water quality status. They can also download the app Indiana BeachesAlert.
Beach Water Quality
According to the National Resources Defense Council, these five beaches had the highest failure rates in 2013 in the state for water quality tests.
1. Jeorse Park Beach I - 52 percent
2. Jeorse Park Beach II - 40 percent
3. Hammond Marina East Beach - 30 percent
4. Buffington Harbor Beach - 28 percent
5. Portage Lakefront Park - 22 percent
Updated: July 3, 2014 2:00AM
A new water quality report for beaches across the country encourages swimmers in Northwest Indiana to check the safety of the water before diving in, including at two in East Chicago that are now labeled as among the habitually worst in the United States.
However, the Indiana Department of Environmental Management hopes to announce later this summer a solution that will greatly improve the water quality at those two Lake Michigan beaches, Jeorse Park Beach I and II in East Chicago.
According to the National Resources Defense Council’s Testing the Waters 2014 report, Indiana ranked 21st in 2013 out of 30 states for its beach water quality. All of the beaches included in the report are in Northwest Indiana.
Although both Jeorse beaches were open Wednesday, just one family was enjoying them that afternoon. Edith Salgado, a Hammond resident, said it was her first time visiting the beach this year although she has brought her family many times in the past.
She’s well aware of the beaches’ water quality problems, Salgado said, and always makes sure to check that they’re open before coming.
“I’m not surprised,” she said of the beaches’ rankings in the NRDC report.
Cold weather kept her children on the beach Wednesday, but she said that as long as the tests show that the water is OK, they usually swim in it.
The ranking is actually the highest the state has ranked since 2008, the earliest report available online, when the state was ranked at 28th.
However, Karen Hobbs, a senior policy analyst for NRDC, said the improved ranking doesn’t mean too much as the state’s actual water quality levels have stayed about the same.
“Overall, we have a stubborn contamination problem that needs to be addressed,” she said.
Of all the water test samples taken from Northwest Indiana beaches last year, 13 percent exceeded new proposed national limits for what is considered safe levels of bacteria such as E. coli.
With the new proposed limit, 32 out of every 1,000 people who swim at these beaches are expected to contact a water-borne illness, versus the current limit, which estimates 36 people out of every 1,000 people will get sick, Hobbs said.
Jeorse Park Beach I had the highest failure rate under the proposed limits, with 52 percent of its test samples exceeding the limits. Jeorse Park Beach II had 40 percent of its test samples fail.
The other beaches with the top five highest failure rates in Northwest Indiana included Hammond Marina East, with 30 percent; Buffington Harbor Beach, with 28 percent, and the Portage Lakefront Park, with 22 percent.
Marquette Park Beach in Gary had the best water quality among beaches in Porter and Lake counties at 5 percent.
The two Jeorse beaches, which are nestled just east of the Ameristar Casino, have had high failure tests since 2008, with a high of 76 percent tests failing in 2009. Because of their continual problems, the NRDC included them on a list this year with 15 other beaches across the country as repeat offenders, or beaches with more than 25 percent of test samples failing every year since 2009.
IDEM is well aware of the problems with both Jeorse beaches and hired the U.S. Geological Survey to study the issue several years ago.
The USGS eventually found that the beach lacks poor water circulation because of its geographical location, which means once bacteria like E. coli get in, it’s hard for them to get out, Hala Kuss, Northwest Regional Office director for IDEM, said. The agency is studying options to help fix the problem and hopes to announce the best one in a month or two, she said.
Depending on funding, the solution could be implemented in about a year.
Michelle Caldwell, IDEM’s Lake Michigan beach program coordinator, noted that the two beaches at Jeorse Park have seen some improvements.
“But it’s not where we want it to be,” she said.
Caldwell added that IDEM wants to look at the Hammond Marina beaches, which have also had some of the highest fail rates in the region, next.
The NRDC’s Hobbs said that the Jeorse beaches’ location — between ArcelorMittal and U.S. Steel — likely doesn’t help the quality of the water but that many beaches in the Great Lakes also suffer from poor water flow because they don’t see the same movement as in the open oceans.
The Great Lakes had the highest fail rate - 13 percent, the same as Indiana - compared to other regions in the country studied in the NRDC report. Hobbs said it’s hard to tell how much of that is man-made, whether from issues such as industry and combined-sewer overflows, and nature, such as issues like the recent derecho storm that hit Northwest Indiana.
“In some ways, we’re just facing a perfect storm,” Hobbs said.
She praised IDEM studying Jeorse to find out what its exact problems are so that it can then tailor an answer to the problem.
Denise Arce, of Chicago, called the Indiana Dunes State Park before making the trip to Porter Beach Wednesday, but about different water issues. “I called yesterday to make sure the water would be open. I thought the water might be too rough because of the storms Monday night.”
Despite the recent rainy weather, testing fail rates in Northwest Indiana this summer have not gone up compared to past years, Calwell said, even though closures usually do follow a large rain.
“Ironically, when I look at the data, I’m expecting to see more exceedances, but I’m not,” she said.
Several were under a contamination advisory Wednesday, and one, Hammond Marina West Beach, was closed because of poor water quality.
Hobbs encouraged people to check before they went to a beach to see if an advisory or closure was in effect. She added that beachgoers can do their own part, such as not letting children swim in dirty diapers or feeding the geese to help keep the water clean.
“There’s a lot of things we can all do,” she said.