Grand Calumet River Area Of Concern Beaches
The Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) implements the Lake Michigan Beach Monitoring and Notification (Beach) Program in partnership with local beach managers and their staff. Participating beach managers are responsible for collecting and testing water samples from Lake Michigan beaches in Lake, Porter, and LaPorte counties for Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria and notifying the public of any beach closures or advisories triggered by exceedances of the state recreational water quality standards during the designated swimming season.
The following nine beaches within the four communities comprising the Grand Calumet River / Indiana Harbor Ship Canal Area of Concern (AOC) are monitored in the Beach Program:
- Hammond West
- Hammond East
- Whihala West
- Whihala East
- East Chicago:
- Jeorse Park I
- Jeorse Park II
- Buffington Harbor (located in Gary, but managed by East Chicago)
- Lake Street
- Marquette Park
Several beaches (e.g., Jeorse Park, Whihala West) located within the AOC have exhibited frequent exceedances of the state recreational water quality standard and resulting risk-based beach swim advisories or closures. The Beach Closings beneficial use impairment (BUI) will continue to apply to the AOC until all nine beaches meet the removal target criteria. IDEM, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA), the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), and local groups are working together to address the root causes of the E. coli exceedances at these beaches and improve water quality through a variety of efforts.
Identification of E. coli Sources
In 2011, scientists from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) identified gulls as the primary contributors to the bacterial contamination at the beaches, with geese, human waste, and cormorants identified as secondary contributors. They did this by collecting water samples and examining the microorganisms for three host-specific genetic markers (DNA fingerprints):
- esp gene – human sewage marker
- HF 183 gene – human sewage marker
- Gull-2 gene – seagull marker
Armed with the data from these microbial source tracking studies, IDEM began to focus on mitigating gull presence and encouraging the adoption of best management practices (BMPs) at AOC beaches as the primary pathway to reducing E. coli exceedances. However, the agency and its partners also explored other structural measures that might be adopted to address these issues.
Gull Harassment Program
E. coli lives in the intestines of warm-blooded animals, including birds. Large numbers of gulls, geese, and other nuisance shorebirds birds call Lake Michigan beaches home, using the beaches for loafing, foraging, and roosting. Bird droppings can contribute extensively to elevated E. coli levels in the nearshore waters of Lake Michigan. However, these birds are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, which essentially makes it illegal for anyone to take, possess, or sell any migratory bird or its nest or eggs without a permit.
Following a successful four-week pilot in 2015, IDEM utilized funding from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) to contract trained border collies to patrol area beaches between sunrise and sunset during the 2016, 2017, and 2018 recreational seasons. A more limited program was then conducted in 2019.
These dogs establish a predatory presence on the beach by harassing the birds and scaring them away from the area without harming them, operating more efficiently than many other solutions [JPG].
Gull Depredation Program
Studies by the USGS and others have shown that ring-billed gulls are one of the largest contributors to E. coli exceedances at AOC beaches. These birds also compete with several state listed and endangered species for resources. Wildlife management specialists from the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, working with local partners, are working to address this problem. Beginning in 2020, they began implementing measures to reduce hatching populations of ring-billed gulls at several industrial facilities, where they nest by the tens of thousands. Over time, this should allow the populations to stabilize, benefiting both beach water quality and native bird species.
Jeorse Park Breakwater Study
The Jeorse Park breakwater appears to obstruct the natural nearshore flow of Lake Michigan in the area, creating a stagnant pool of water that increases concentrations of E. coli in the area. In 2017, USACE and Michigan State University completed detailed simulations of the effect of potential breakwater and beach shoreline modifications on water quality. Unfortunately, the results of these studies indicated that it would not be possible to alter the breakwater or shoreline to achieve the required levels of E. coli reduction.
Jeorse Park Beach Ecosystem Restoration
The City of East Chicago is partnering with USACE to restore breakwater, beach, dune, and nearshore habitat along 4,500 feet of Lake Michigan at Jeorse Park Beach. USACE’s contractor began invasive plant treatment and removal in 2017, followed by installation of cobble reefs, dune structures, and filling of the breakwater. Planting of native species, including marram grass and jack and white pine, followed in 2018. Finally, the contractor completed the bulk of the construction with a pedestrian safety rail along the breakwater in 2019. Establishment work will occur through 2021, followed by three years of post-construction monitoring.
USACE is utilizing GLRI funding, along with a local match from the community to conduct the project, which is anticipated to provide numerous benefits to the area. These include improvements to:
- Buffering capacity of surface water run-off
- Habitat diversity and cover
- Forage opportunities for birds and fish
- Spawning opportunities
- Native species richness
- Angler recreational opportunities
- Resident nuisance bird populations
- Area aesthetics
Best Management Practice Adoption
Local communities and individuals play a vital role in reducing levels of E. coli at area beaches, thus allowing for the removal of the Beach Closings BUI. The most important best management practice (BMP) that communities can adopt to reduce E. coli is daily beach grooming. When done correctly, beach grooming not only removes trash that can pose a safety hazard to visitors and a lure to nuisance wildlife but exposes and aerates the sand, inactivating E. coli and other pathogens. Other community-level BMPs include:
- Appropriate use of structure or active bird deterrents, such as that employed during the gull harassment program
- Proper trash management, including use of wildlife-proof trash cans or carry-in/carry-out policies
- Implementation and enforcement of no handfeeding and pet waste ordinances.
Individuals can also do their part to keep beaches clean by refraining from handfeeding birds, cleaning up after their pets, and properly disposing of trash. IDEM has developed several videos to educate the AOC communities about BMPs: