Gail Weber walks into the shallow water at Morrison Park Beach south of Lakemoor, and dips a thermometer into the 80-degree water.
Weber, a lab specialist for the McHenry County Health Department, writes the temperature and an “S” or “D,” for shallow or deep, on top of a container slightly larger than one for baby food.
Weber dips a bottle about a foot under water and leaves a small gap so a reagent can be added later. Then she walks into a little deeper water and repeats the process.
The two water samples are brought back to the McHenry County Health Department lab where the water is placed in a sealed tray and placed into an incubator for 18 to 22 hours. The next day, the lab technicians place a fluorescent light over the water samples and are able to see how much E. coli is in the water. The health department then makes a call on whether to close the beach.
The number of beaches that had to be closed because of E. coli this year is the highest in the past 10 years. This year, the area has seen higher rain amounts than in previous years, Weber said.
“It can lead to elevated E. coli levels,” she said.
Crystal Lake’s Main Beach has been closed or had advisory-prompting levels of E. coli 17 times this summer. How much the closures or warnings can cost the park district on a given day depends on the day of the week and the temperature.
Jack Sebesta, the superintendent of recreation for the Crystal Lake Park District, estimated that the district had lost between $25,000 and $35,000 this year in revenue because of closed beaches. And while public health is paramount, the losses are felt.
“We plan on having that revenue to run our operations, paying for lifeguards and upkeep,” park district Executive Director Jason Herbster said. “It definitely impacts when we have to close. It’s not a good situation. People can’t swim, we can’t make ends meet.”
Weber said that E. coli spreads from feces in the ground, mostly from geese, and usually washes into lakes when there is a heavy rain. People who ingest E. coli risk having gastrointestinal, nose, throat or ear infections.
The health department tests public beach water at least once every two weeks and days after heavy rains, because runoff into the lakes makes it likely for E. coli counts to rise. Private beaches are not tested on a regular basis, but people can bring samples to the health department for testing.
Reducing runoff would help, and there are steps people can take, said Cindy Skrukrud, chairwoman of the water resources committee of the Environmental Defenders of McHenry County.
Skrukrud recommended that people direct downspouts for water off roofs into gardens instead of onto pavement.
Water that goes through soil will have nutrients and other pollutants broken down in the soil, which helps clean the water.
New developments now have to meet regulations directing water into some sort of vegetation, Skrukrud said.
“We’ve recognized that it’s not good to rapidly flush water off our property onto pavement and into bodies of water,” Skrukrud said.
“We can’t control the rain, but we can do something about how water runs off property,” she said. “That’s the issue everyone can get together and tackle.”
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Testing the water
The McHenry County Health Department tests beaches for E. coli levels during the summer. Depending on the level of E. coli in the water, the department either closes beaches or puts out advisory warnings for people to swim at their own risk.
The following number of beaches were closed or had an advisory warning for at least one day since 2000, from Memorial Day through July 7:
2000: Seven beaches closed and three with advisories.
2001: Five beaches closed and no advisories.
2002: 13 beaches closed and two with advisories.
2003: Five beaches closed and no advisories.
2004: Two beaches closed and 15 with advisories.
2005: Three beaches closed and eight with advisories.
2006: Seven beaches closed and 18 with advisories.
2007: Nine beaches closed and eight with advisories.
2008: 19 beaches closed and 19 with advisories.
2009: 16 beaches closed and nine with advisories.
2010: 28 beaches closed and 24 with advisories.
Source: McHenry County Health Department
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You can help
Although the health department does not test private beaches on a regular basis, people can bring in beach water samples to the health department.
Water testing kits can be picked up at the Algonquin, Dorr, McHenry, Nunda, Richmond and Grafton township offices, the Harvard Police Department, and Marengo City Hall. The testing costs $23 and people should label that the water is from a beach. For information, call the Health Department Environmental Health Division at 815-334-4585.