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Befouling of Chicago beaches doubted
Milwaukee’s 2004 sewage dump probably wasn’t cause, study says
By Steve Schultze and Marie Rohde
Posted August 24, 2005

Milwaukee's record sewage dumping during May 2004 probably didn't cause Chicago beach pollution a few weeks later, according to new research aimed at settling a dispute spawned by Windy City politicians.

The soon-to-be published report probably won't be the final word, however.

Parts of it lend support to the traveling-sewage scenario, showing that lake flows from Milwaukee have reached as far south as Waukegan, Ill., within 20 days.

Richard Whitman, one of the report's authors, said Wednesday that untreated sewage dumped into Lake Michigan from Milwaukee indeed could foul Chicago beaches - even if Milwaukee sewage wasn't to blame for the spate of closures in June 2004.

Heavy rains that May led to massive discharges of untreated sewage by the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District into Lake Michigan. The district initially pegged the volume at 4.6 billion gallons, but later substantially revised the figure downward, to 1.7 billion gallons.

Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) were quick to pounce on Milwaukee for that dumping, with Kirk dubbing it "Cheesehead sewer water" and Daley opining that "it's going to float down here."

This week, spokesmen for Daley and Kirk ratcheted down the rhetoric some, stressing cooperative efforts to fend off beach pollution all over Lake Michigan and the other Great Lakes.

"I don't think any city should be off the hook," said Rita Athas, Daley's deputy chief of staff, when asked whether the study exonerated Milwaukee. "Putting 4 billion gallons of sewage in the Great Lakes can't be a good thing."

MMSD Executive Director Kevin Shafer said Wednesday that he wasn't familiar with the study's results. He has previously rejected the notion that MMSD's dumping could affect Chicago beaches.

Surviving the cold water
Whitman said sewage-borne bacteria under some circumstances could survive the lake chill as hitchhikers on host particles and take the 90-mile swim to Chicago.

"It remains a good possibility" that some of the Chicago beach pollution comes from "imported" pollutants, said Whitman, who heads the U.S. Geological Survey's Great Lakes Science Center.

"The (Milwaukee) overflow causing a (Chicago) closure a week later is unlikely," he said. Bacteria from a Milwaukee sewage dumping could, however, "show up three, four, five weeks later" in Chicago, Whitman said.

Other research by Whitman and others has shown that bacteria that attaches to organic debris can live at least several months in beach sands and lake sediments, he said.

MMSD has dumped more than 14 billion gallons of untreated sewage since the deep tunnel system was completed more than a decade ago, though none this year.

The dumping is the subject of a longstanding federal pollution lawsuit and ongoing state probe. The district has pledged to do nearly $1 billion in additional improvements to reduce sewer overflows.

Whitman's name is attached to the study, which suggests that the untreated sewage dumped by MMSD into the lake from May 10 to May 25 last year could not have reached Chicago beaches by June 20, when several were closed because of high bacteria counts.

The research was launched last year based on a request by Kirk and Daley.

That study also involved researchers from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. They based their conclusion on lake currents, satellite photos and testing for E. coli bacteria in the Milwaukee harbor around the time of the sewage dumping.

A computer simulation
David Schwab, an NOAA oceanographer and another study author, said a computer simulation done for the study showed that water from the Milwaukee River during the May 2004 sewer overflows was "very unlikely" to reach Chicago by the time high E. coli readings were found at Chicago beaches.

Much of the MMSD dumping was into the Milwaukee River.

Lake currents vary with the wind, but the predominant direction is southward, Schwab said. Significantly, his computer model showed Milwaukee River water reaching as far south as Waukegan, Ill., within 20 days.

The study did not attempt to determine whether the flow from Milwaukee after the big sewage dump had any impact on beaches between Milwaukee and Chicago, said David Rockwell, an environmental scientist with the EPA and one of the study's four authors.

"We'd have to look at that more precisely because those areas are closer to Milwaukee and the possibilities are greater," Rockwell said.

Bacteria died within days
Sandra McLellan, the UWM researcher on the study, said water samples taken from the Milwaukee harbor during the May 2004 overflows suggested bacteria died off within a couple of days.

"Once (bacteria) starts to disperse in Lake Michigan, it really dies off quickly," said McLellan, who works for UWM's Great Lakes Water Institute. Other pathogens - viruses and protozoa - live longer, but it's not clear how much longer, she said.

Whitman cautioned that sampling at relatively shallow depths "doesn't tell you anything." Bacteria that get to beaches, lakebed sediments and algae do live longer, he said.

"There is a free exchange of what is in the sand and what is in the lake," he said.

The focus on affixing blame for a set of beach closings might be misplaced.

Whitman said a complex series of interrelated factors affects pollutants around Lake Michigan, with sewer overflows, runoff and other bacteria sources contributing.

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