Cleaning up Chicago’s wide, romantic beaches

April 13, 2013

(Flickr/Tom Gill)
A message in a bottle. Volunteers cleaning up Chicago beaches actually found one.

Volunteers for an Adopt-A-Beach program are headed to Chicago-area beaches to clean up trash and debris starting this weekend.

And those beaches are bigger than usual this year due to record-low water levels over the winter. After hitting an all-time low in January, Lake Michigan is creeping back up, but U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projections show the lake could still dip below its 1965 low water records without a lot of rain.

That said, it’s been raining a decent amount this week, which has a different potential consequence for beach sweepers: combined sewer overflow and runoff can mean more trash along the shoreline.

Louise Kulaga, an eighth-grade science teacher at Gurrie Middle School in LaGrange, is taking a group of middle-schoolers to clean up 12th Street Beach and North Avenue Beach this spring. Cleanups involve picking up trash, recycling, conducting basic sampling and testing for bacteria in the water. Shallow waters along the shore could lead to higher bacteria counts this summer.

Kulaga says the low water means a wider beach, but not necessarily more trash. That depends on weather conditions, and how recently there’s been a beach party. In past years, she and her students have already seen a lot.

“There’s always some little bit of drug paraphernalia here and there,” she said. “And diapers. The back seats of a car. A totem pole, a piece of a totem pole.”

But that’s not even the best of it. A couple years ago they found a green wine bottle with a message in it. Kulaga convinced the principal, who was out with the group, to be the one to read the message to the kids. She was a little worried about what it might say. But it turned out to be rated PG, PG-13 at worst.

“It was a little dramatic, it was about someone breaking up with a boyfriend or a girlfriend, we couldn’t quite tell,” she said. “And they were purging their feelings into Lake Michigan.”

Teams of volunteers will start combing Chicago’s wide, romantic beaches this weekend; anyone interested can join in public cleanups through the Great Lakes Alliance.

Lewis Wallace is a Pritzker Journalism Fellow at WBEZ. Follow him @lewispants.