Opinion: Run-off of county pipes is
spoiling Bradford Beach
By James Rowen for WisPolitcs.com
Published January 4th, 2005
Researchers looking for the cause of pollution responsible
for closing Milwaukee's Bradford Beach in the spring and
summer of 2004 have identified one ironic leading contributor
to the contamination:
Milwaukee County government itself, just-revealed documents
and scientific findings show.
Contamination is reaching the Bradford Beach sand and
water through five large sewer pipe openings known as
"outfalls," which are owned by Milwaukee County.
Topped with circular, protective concrete covers about
five feet in diameter, the outfalls are located at the
top of Bradford Beach and east of the Lincoln Memorial
Drive sidewalk closest to a part of the lakeshore described
on the county parks' Web site as "Milwaukee's most
popular beach for swimming and sunbathing."
There are outfalls near both the north and south sides
of the main gathering spot at the Bradford Beach bathhouse.
Frequently used sand volleyball courts and sunning areas
are also close to outfalls, as are wading and swimming
Though beach closings and Lake Michigan's water quality
have been widely covered in the news media, the possible
contributing role played by Milwaukee County-owned sewer
outfalls hasn't been part of the public discussion. It
has, however, been known to academics and government officials.
The county's sewer outfalls have long been located at
the beach, according to Greg High, an administrator with
the County Department of Parks and Public Infrastructure.
High said that during rainstorms, storm water takes various
paths before emptying into Lake Michigan through the Bradford
Beach outfalls. He said water runs down the Lake Park
bluffs, off parkland west of Lincoln Memorial Drive, and
across the roadway before emerging through the outfalls.
But because of the outfalls' locations -- and because
of how rainwater becomes polluted -- the outfalls spew
contaminated water directly across this premier sandy
beach and into Lake Michigan water, according to scientists
at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's Great Lakes
Wisconsin Aquatic Technology and Environmental Research
The WATER Institute's researchers have been taking water
samples and tracing E. coli bacteria contamination since
2003 and are working with several units of government,
including the county, to identify pollution sources and
reduce contamination. They have discovered that the county
pipes are contaminating Bradford Beach.
"We have found the one major source of contamination,
if not the primary source, is the storm water discharged
from outfalls above the beach area," said institute
assistant scientist Sandra L. McLellan, in a Sept. 3,
2004 memo to the City of Milwaukee budget office.
The water institute, partnering with the city's Health
Department and county government, has documented how quickly
and severely the outfalls put dangerous contamination
onto Bradford Beach, records show.
Within one hour of a June 2004 rainstorm, levels of the
bacteria E. coli, a health hazard found in feces, had
jumped at Bradford Beach to more than 67 times the level
above which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says
makes for unsafe swimming, McLellan wrote.
"The spatial distribution of the E. coli across
the beach matches the path the outfall water runs before
it drains to Lake Michigan," McLellan wrote. "The
water from the outfall cuts a path across the sand, in
the area where children play, before it enters Lake Michigan.
Therefore, even though water quality advisories are issued,
the beach area itself may be a health concern.''
E. coli can live in the sand; when it reaches colder
water beyond the swimming beach, E. coli dies.
The institute's Web site contained this description of
how rainwater can turn into such a pollutant:
"Water that enters storm drains is not 'treated'
before it empties into a stream, river or lake. This means
that when it rains, oil, antifreeze, paint, grass clippings,
household waste, pet waste and any other debris on our
streets and sidewalks flows directly into our nearby surface
waters," says the description.
High, of the county's parks and infrastructure department,
said the county was using the institute's findings and
other means to help "backtrack" and find potential
E. coli sources in Lake Park. He said those sources could
include sanitary sewage infiltration, pet and wild animal
waste, gull droppings and the possible leakage into the
storm sewers of human fecal matter from county toilets
in parks buildings.
He said more data would be collected to pinpoint how
and where the E. coli might be originating, adding that
re-routing or relocating the outfalls were possible solutions
to the beach contamination problem.
McLellan said, "It isn't good management practice
to have storm outfalls so near to a recreational area."
Testing of Lake Michigan water and the cleaning and closing
the beaches in Milwaukee is a shared responsibility.
The UWM institute uses state and federal grant funds
to find sources of Lake Michigan water pollution. McLellan
said water sampling and pollution research was ongoing
up and down the Lake Michigan shoreline. In Milwaukee,
she said, gull droppings and sewerage infiltration into
storm water were eyed as possible beach pollution contributors.
The City of Milwaukee Health Department conducts daily
tests of beach water during the summer, and depending
on pollution levels, issues swimming advisories and beach
closing recommendations. The county is in charge of closing
beaches because they are part of the county-run parks
In a three-month period from May 5 to Aug. 4 of last
year, E. coli contamination in the water at Bradford Beach
was deemed unacceptable for swimming 44 percent of the
time -- nearly double the rate in 2003 -- according to
the city Health Department.
Officials at the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewage District,
the region's sewerage treatment agency, have pointed to
cutbacks in county parks' budgets and the location of
the outfalls at Bradford Beach in particular as contributors
to beach and water degradation along the lakeshore.
"Bradford Beach suffers from poor maintenance,"
said Kevin Shafer, MMSD's executive director, in an Oct.
29, 2004 report to the district's commissioners. The report
recommended a $25,000 MMSD expenditure for a Bradford
Beach demonstration improvement project in 2005.
A spot check of the Lake Park hillside, the beach and
two parking lots next to and across the road from Bradford
Beach in late December bore out Shafer's assessment. All
surfaces contained a variety of fast food wrappers, soda
and beer cans, pet waste, newspapers and plastic and paper
bags. Despite signs forbidding dogs, three people were
allowing their dogs to run off-leash on the sand.
MMSD approved the expenditure in its 2005 budget and
plans to meet with county officials in February to coordinate
Shafer's report said MMSD proposed the project because
"the cleanliness and general upkeep of the beaches
has suffered due to cuts to the Milwaukee County Parks
Department budget, negatively impacting water."
The MMSD addressed county budget cutbacks with grants
in 2003 and 2004 to pay for the removal from Bradford
Beach of algae that acts as a food source for bacteria,
Shafer's report said.
The report recommends that the county improve its beach
combing and algae removal techniques to help lower the
bacteria counts. It also calls for the creation of a "strong
public education effort" about the sources of beach
contamination and the implementation of "testing
best management practices at one of the storm sewer outfalls."
"Milwaukee County should take actions that would
have an immediate, cost-effective benefit on water quality
near beaches," Shafer wrote.
Shafer pointed to an earlier joint effort among MMSD,
the UWM WATER Institute and Milwaukee County to reduce
pollution at South Shore Beach. Shafer also said progress
could be made at Bradford Beach by copying beach grading
and "innovative" cleanup techniques at Racine's
McLellan's Sept. 3 memo to the city budget office did
not mince words about the how the contamination was getting
onto Bradford Beach, and about its dangers.
"We have found that the source of the E. coli is
primarily from the E. coli burden in the sand and from
five outfalls," she wrote.
In italics, she added: "Any sanitary inputs into
the storm water system presents a serious health risk
to citizens using the beach."
Rowen is a veteran journalist in Milwaukee who writes
and consults on environmental and political issues.