GARY, Ind. (AP) — The water quality at Indiana beaches improved in 2011, resulting in fewer beach closings and advisories.
South Shore beaches were closed or under advisory 379 times last year, according to data collected as part of the Natural Resources Defense Council's annual Testing the Waters report. Most of the incidents were due to unknown contamination sources, which are typically combined sewage overflows or storm water runoff, but beaches can also be closed for weather or current events.
About 11 percent of water samples exceeded national E. coli bacteria standards compared to 16 percent in 2010. E. coli comes from human and animal waste, and if it is ingested, people can suffer stomach illnesses, nausea or liver problems.
Jeorse Park I in East Chicago led the list of beaches with the highest level of excessive samples, at 48 percent. It was followed by Jeorse Park Beach II, Hammond Marina East Beach at 27 percent, and Indiana Dunes State Park's East Beach and the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore's Porter Beach. Four Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore beaches never exceeded bacteria standards: Lakeview Beach, Central Avenue Beach, Mount Baldy, and State Park Road/Kemil Avenue Beach
Jennifer Birchfield, water program director at Save the Dunes, said beach pollution remains a problem due to aging infrastructure, like pipes and sewage treatment plants.
"It's no longer adequate for the population in this area," Birchfield said. "The trouble is we're talking millions if not billions of dollars to replace it."
Save the Dunes is promoting green infrastructure solutions that can help prevent overflows and runoff from getting to the beach. Birchfield cited saving wetlands from development and planting native grasses that soak up more water next to retention ponds in Valparaiso. Residents can also use rain barrels and plant rain gardens to prevent runoff.
Birchfield said beach closures are a quality of life and economic issue.
"One study estimated the economic losses of a beach closure as high as $37,000 per day," she said.
Most local beaches test the water once per week, but others test more frequently.
Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore spokesman Bruce Rowe said E. coli levels tend to spike following a large rain event, but so far in 2012, lakeshore beaches haven't experienced any increases.
Rowe said beaches at the lakeshore are tested every Wednesday during swimming season and if results exceed 235 cfu/100 ml, then testing occurs daily.
Information from: Post-Tribune, http://www.post-trib.com