An effective tool that the Chicago Park District has been using to increase the number of days that swimming is permitted at some of the 22 designated swimming beaches on Chicago’s lakefront: dogs.

The district is employing a team of border collies on two of the Chicago beaches with the highest number of swim bans: Foster Avenue Beach and 63rd Street Beach. The dogs, under the management of a LaGrange, Ill.-based organization called Wild Goose Chase, roam the lakeshore between Memorial Day and Labor Day, and intimidate the seagulls into finding other places to scavenge for food. The collies do their patrol routes in random four-hour increments.

Seagull droppings raise the bacteria levels along the Lake Michigan shoreline. The park district bans swimming when the level of bacteria exceeds safe levels.

And the program is working. The number of days that a swim action (advisory or ban) was issued at 63rd Street Beach was reduced 92 percent from 2007 to 2008. Last year, the border collie program was tested for a few weeks at Foster Avenue beach and found to reduce the seagull population by about 30 percent, according to park district officials.

“We are hoping to demonstrate that the seagull harassment program achieves results year after year,” Zhanna Yermakov, the park district’s natural areas manager, told Yermakov noted that gulls generally return to the beach within a week after harassment efforts end.

Park district taking a number of steps

The district has installed grid wires and other bird-control systems to discourage birds from gathering on the shoreline. Among other recent steps taken to help keep beaches open for swimming, the district has:

  • Started an educational outreach program that focuses on asking beachgoers to not feed the birds and to place waste in the appropriate garbage or recycling container. Signs alert beachgoers that feeding birds impacts beach quality, and park district workers deliver that message as well, Yermakov explained.
  • Installed 25 Big Belly solar-powered trash compactors in 2007 to provide an alternative waste container and to provide more attention to waste placement.
  • Placed lidded trashcans on the beachfront to reduce food sources available to gulls.

The ‘Chicago rake’ fights bacteria

In 2008, the district tested modified beach-combing equipment. The district worked with the manufacturer of the Surf Rake beachcomber, H. Barber and Sons, to develop the “Chicago rake” as an alternative attachment on their standard equipment. The new attachment digs deeper into the sand, leaving cultivated grooves that allow sunlight and air to hit deeper levels of sand and decrease the amount of bacteria that can grow in the sand and leach into recreational swimming water.

The district will continue to implement a border collie harassment program from dawn until dusk each summer at two of the city’s beaches. Other steps the district is planning include:

  • Conducting a beach sanitary survey, to further research all of the possible point and non-point sources of E. coli at individual beaches within the district.
  • Implementing mitigation and remediation efforts to minimize bacterial sources that most affect individual beaches.
  • Using a predictive modeling system that will measure possible bacterial indicators and their influence on the beach as well as to provide real-time test results for beachgoers.