This Beach Tale is a Real Mystery;
Scientists Still Searching for the Source of Befouling
Bacteria Along Lakeshore
Originally from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Posted on RedNova News July 23, 2005
The suspect list in the case of who's fouling Milwaukee's
beaches reads like a bizarre mystery novel.
The lineup includes gulls, dogs, cats, cows, deer, algae
and us. Or more accurately, bacteria from fecal material
deposited or harbored by the various animal and plant
suspects that is somehow washed into Lake Michigan.
How it got to the lake is another tough piece of the
whodunit. Researchers are paying increasing attention
to large numbers of gulls that congregate at the beaches
as well as storm water runoff and the stew of pollutants
it carries as prime bacteria sources.
The number of city beach warnings issued this year is
close to last year's pace only at South Shore Park beach,
which has been a perennial trouble spot. High bacteria
warnings have been posted for that beach on 39 days so
far this season, compared with 41 at this point last year.
Health advisories for Bradford and McKinley beaches are
down considerably. One big difference: This year has been
much drier. Record rainfall in May 2004 resulted in massive
sewer overflows and storm water runoff, both of which
greatly boost beach bacteria loads.
Suburban beaches also show some high bacteria levels
this season, though the picture is murkier because tests
are done less frequently than for city beaches. Shorewood's
Atwater Park beach, for example, has had advisories for
seven days this season, including five days in which it
Decaying algae rimmed the Atwater shoreline this week,
an area also popular with gulls.
No dumping this season
The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District has done
no sewage dumping this year.
"This year it's been dry and the beaches are still
closing," MMSD spokesman Bill Graffin said. "There's
a lot more affecting beach pollution than sewer overflows."
But researchers are loath to pin blame or declare innocence
for a particular source, can't say for sure why the bacteria
advisories continue and caution that the science of dirty
beaches has a long way to go.
"There's just huge gaps in knowledge on some of
these things," said Sandra McLellan, a scientist
with the University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee's Great Lakes
That may be less than reassuring, especially when confronted
with alarming warning signs about water quality that have
been popping up regularly at the three city and other
Milwaukee County beaches.
But this much we do know, according to water scientists
and other experts:
-- Our beach warnings are based largely on cheap, unsophisticated
tests for the presence of E. coli bacteria, commonly found
in feces. The test was developed as a way to detect whether
human waste and the disease-causing germs it carries had
made its way to the lake.
-- However, that test can't tell whether the bacteria
detected came from human or animal feces. And while the
information is still useful, it's not known whether gull
or other animal waste harbors pathogens that make people
-- Raw sewage dumping or leaky sewers pose the biggest
confirmed beach health hazard and the underlying rationale
for even bothering with beach water testing.
Sewage at the beaches
While debate over which bacteria sources deserve most
blame continues, the threat of human sewage pollution
remains the biggest worry because of its known potential
for sickening people.
"During sewer overflows, you can be pretty assured
some of that water is going to get to the beach,"
One of the several studies the institute has done in
recent years on beach pollution showed that sewage dumped
in the Milwaukee, Menomonee and Kinnickinnic rivers typically
after severe storms often follows a path that carries
it past Milwaukee beaches, she said.
For example, the study showed that north winds push lake
currents on a path that runs past a sewer outfall a point
where raw sewage is dumped in the lake at Russell Ave.
in the Bay View neighborhood and continues to the South
Shore beach area, she said.
"Birds and storm water are things we are less worried
about," she said.
Still, studies such as McLellan's 2002 review that suggested
gull feces were a major bacteria source at South Shore
beach and similar new research on Chicago beaches have
It even prompted the Chicago Sun-Times to editorialize
earlier this month, "Blame those gull-darn birds,
not Milwaukee, for beach closings." That was a reference
to last year's big MMSD sewage dumping, which prompted
anti-Milwaukee jabs from Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and
other Chicago-area politicians.
While studies indeed suggest lots of the bacteria being
found at parts of some beaches likely came from gulls,
the jury's still out on whether gulls carry bugs that
can sicken people, said Holly Wirick, beach program coordinator
for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's regional
The culprits, according to Wirick, for high bacteria
levels: domestic or wild animal waste that washes into
rivers and eventually gets to the beaches; children swimming
with messy diapers; or algal blooms that harbor bacteria.
One researcher found that people on average carry about
one-tenth of a gram of fecal material on their bodies.
Genetic research is continuing to try to determine beach
Algae provide harbor
In Milwaukee and elsewhere on Lake Michigan, bumper crops
of cladophora have plagued beachgoers for several years.
The algae provide harbor for E. coli to thrive, McLellan
said. Researchers believe the algal bloom is linked to
the prevalence of zebra mussels. Their voracious appetites
have resulted in clearer water, allowing more light to
penetrate deeper and encourage cladophora growth, she
Local efforts to fix the problem have focused on better
beach grooming, cleaning up algae that wash ashore and
a new $30,000 project at South Shore to divert and clean
parking lot runoff.
The South Shore project was completed about two weeks
ago, but it's too soon to see good results, said Gregory
High, a Milwaukee County parks official.
Parks officials have requested $1.3 million in their
proposed 2006 budget to reroute seven storm sewer pipes
away from Bradford Beach, High said. Other alternatives
remain under review.
While the plethora of advisories might give the public
the impression that beaches are dirtier now, that's probably
not true, said Nicole Richmond, a water quality specialist
with the state Department of Natural Resources.
"We are just monitoring more. We know more, we have
more scientific data," she said.
Efforts to develop a faster and more discerning water
test also are under way by the EPA.
Researcher Rebecca Calderon said she hoped a new test
to measure enterococci a different type of bacteria that
can cause stomach ailments rather than E. coli would be
available by the 2007 swimming season.
The aim also is to have results in two hours instead
of the 24 hours it now takes to get E. coli test results,
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Source: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel