If Ohio Street Beach is representative of the residents and tourists who spend time at Chicago’s Lake Michigan beaches in the summer, the city’s beach-going population doesn’t know much about the Chicago Park District’s efforts to keep them safe from dangerous waters.
The combination of a long distance swimming area, proximity to the Loop, and a café and bar nearby, means the traffic at the Ohio Street Beach is near-constant. But many people along that stretch of Lake Michigan are clueless about the swim advisory system intended to alert them about water safety on any given day.
The swim advisories for Lake Michigan are meant to be bold and visible so swimmers can be warned of any dangers before jumping in the lake. They include a yellow flag raised on the lifeguard stand, and warnings posted on the Chicago beaches website. Most days the flag at the beach is green rather than yellow and the water is generally considered safe, but every so often a swim ban will be issued. During these bans the red flag goes up and swimming is not permitted.
Red means no and green means go is a fairly straightforward rule, but the yellow might be more confusing. A lifeguard at the beach said of the yellow advisories: “It’s essentially a ‘swim at your own risk’ kind of thing.” On swim advisory days for waves or for high levels of harmful bacteria in the water, lifeguards will set up an area using swim buoys that’s designated as a “safe” area and swimming is permitted only in that section of the lakefront.
Falyn, a nearby Streeterville resident studying at the Illinois Institute of Art, said she wasn’t aware the Park District regularly tests Lake Michigan water to make sure swimming isn’t hazardous.
“I’ve seen the shark flags in Florida and I thought they (the swim advisory flags) might be like that,” she said. While she doesn’t venture out far when she swims at the beach, Falyn said she hadn’t realized the Park District was testing the water to protect people from wading in and possibly getting sick.
Even beach regulars aren’t aware of the Park District’s notifications. Vickie, one of those regulars, said she doesn’t swim at the beach when she heads down there, but was still surprised to hear about the swim advisory system.
“I come to the beach every day…what flags?” she asked. Although the flags are not exactly hidden, they’re not particularly well-displayed either.
On the other end of the spectrum, John, another Chicago resident, owns a locker at Ohio Street Beach and can be found swimming in the water most summer days. He wasn’t aware of how the advisories were decided, but he did know the Park District was testing the water. He admitted, however, he only checks for swim advisories “when I’m not feeling lazy.” He says it’s the lifeguards’ job to make sure that people who don’t know about the flags, or don’t look for the warnings, are still warned away from wading into the water when it’s unsafe. Fortunately, John said that he has never been ill after swimming.
The Park District does its job by warning swimmers when to stay out of the water. It’s up to the beach-goers to decide if they want to follow that good advice.