Bradford is dirtiest city beach
Bacteria also high at others
By Steve Schultze
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Posted May 30, 2005
Bradford Beach surfaced as Milwaukee's dirtiest beach
during last year's swimming season, in a new analysis,
while all three of the city's Lake Michigan beaches posted
more days with dangerous bacteria levels in 2004 than
the two prior years.
E. coli bacteria counts at Bradford exceeded safe levels
for 61% of the three-month swimming season, according
to the city Health Department review. But the picture
wasn't much better at McKinley and South Shore Park beaches
in 2004, with high bacteria counts for 52% and 56% of
the season, respectively. The figures were based on 98
days of testing starting in late May.
Put another way, if you took a swim on any given day
last summer at any of the city's beaches you had a better
than 50-50 chance of dousing yourself with E. coli - a
type of bacteria commonly linked with fecal material -
at potentially unhealthy levels.
The Health Department recommends no swimming on days
when E. coli counts exceed 235 units per 100 milliliters
of water, following a standard set by the federal government.
Bradford also had some of the highest daily E. coli counts
in '04, with tallies of 10 times or more the danger level
on 18 days scattered throughout the summer, according
to data collected by the Health Department.
That compares with South Shore, which had E. coli readings
of 10 times the danger level on 10 days, and McKinley
with readings that high on eight days, the city figures
The 2004 beach pollution figures far exceeded those for
'03, when Bradford had high bacteria readings 27% of the
season, McKinley had high readings for 15% of the season
and South Shore's figure was 26%.
In 2002, South Shore had the worst pollution, with dangerously
high readings 65% of the swimming season. Bradford had
high readings for 45% of the season and McKinley posted
high readings for 34% of the season.
Cause, effect elusive
Affixing blame for the bad beach pollution last year is
tough for scientists because of the large number of variables
that affect beach bacteria, said Paul Biedrzycki, manager
of disease control and prevention for the Milwaukee Health
"This demonstrates that there is variability outside
our current level of understanding," Biedrzycki said,
when asked to explain the reasons for last year's beach
However, he said some of the change can be traced to
heavier rains in 2004, which flushed more pollutants off
parking lots, streets and upstream farm fields. In addition,
the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District dumped at
least 1.7 billion gallons of untreated sewage during heavy
May 2004 rainstorms, according to its most recent estimates.
Researchers say runoff pollution is likely a major culprit,
but that doesn't mean sewer overflows get a pass. Disease-causing
organisms contained in human sewage continue to make overflows
the most worrisome of the beach pollution sources, said
Sandra McLellan, a scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's
Great Lakes Water Institute.
'Horrible and unacceptable'
State Rep. Jon Richards (D-Milwaukee) called the beach
pollution findings "horrible and unacceptable,"
but he said he was encouraged by studies that suggest
runoff from storm sewers, along with overflows of Milwaukee's
combined sanitary/storm sewers and bird droppings, may
be playing a big role.
Interpreting just what the high bacteria readings really
mean to personal health, however, remains a bit elusive.
E. coli is used as a warning for the possible presence
of disease-causing organisms, but a high reading doesn't
necessarily mean you'll get sick.
"E. coli itself is not a health hazard, it's just
an indicator of fecal pollution," McLellan said.
"It's really a general cleanliness issue."
Since attacking E. coli is the best strategy researchers
have come up with so far, local efforts have concentrated
on ways to drive down those numbers.
The entire expanse of Bradford Beach was re-graded this
spring, in part to smooth depressions that had formed
over the years. Those turned into mini-ponds after rainstorms
and provided an ideal growth environment for bacteria-laden
storm water runoff, McLellan said.
In addition, Monday-through-Friday grooming of Bradford
and McKinley beaches with new equipment is aimed at killing
bacteria by exposing it to sunlight. The job replicates
an earlier effort in Racine, which resulted in a 20% to
30% reduction in beach advisory days, Biedrzycki said.
Scientists have learned that contrary to earlier theory,
bacteria not exposed to direct sunlight can survive in
beach sand for long periods.
Less intensive grooming also will be done at other Milwaukee
County beaches, and Milwaukee Service Corps crews will
remove cladophera algae deposits. Large rotting mats of
cladophera have accounted for the bad smell at some spots
along the lakeshore, most notably just north of Bradford
Also, new devices that filter storm water from the parking
lot area at South Shore Beach will be tested in the next
couple of weeks after rainfall, McLellan said.
In addition, regular sweeping of parking lots adjacent
to McKinley and Bradford beaches might be advisable, McLellan
More expensive fixes remain under advisement. For example,
Milwaukee County officials are studying whether several
storm sewer pipes that discharge near Bradford Beach should
be relocated or if runoff from them can be cleaned or
diverted using a cheaper method.
MMSD continues to tackle nearly $1 billion in long-range
projects designed to curb sewer overflows, but it also
is contributing $50,000 to the beach grooming effort and
$15,000 toward the South Shore Beach project.
So, what should you do if you're contemplating a romp
at the beach with the kids?
"If a beach has been consistently closed or it has
just rained and you know storm water has gone to the site,
you might want to stay away from it," McLellan said.
Through Monday, all Milwaukee beaches were posted good