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South Shore Beach Water Quality Remains Murky Issue


South Shore Beach in Bay View holds the unenviable distinction of being one of the dirtiest beaches in the country.

Pop onto Milwaukee County's beach conditions web page and it's not unusual to find water quality warnings for Bay View's South Shore Beach.

The Natural Resources Defense Council ranks its among the most consistently contaminated in the U.S.

We talked with people who have opinions on how to improve things.

Kathy Mulvey and her husband moved across town 17 years ago, to their home near South Shore Beach and a killer view of Lake Michigan.

“There’s always something going on on the lake; we see the ferry coming and going, we see the Denis Sullivan out for its sails; the yacht club has its races and the kids learn to sail out here and that’s always fun,” Mulvey says.

As for bird-watching......

“This is the flyway so all the migrating ducks and birds – all kinds of birds – come and go here all year; it’s really fun to keep track of them,” Mulvey says.

Mulvey is a civically engaged person. She helped get the farmers market going, and beforehand, the South Shore Park Watch.

At first, its members kept watch of shore erosion because the breakwater had deteriorated.

“When we first started the park watch, the water was very high and the spring storms in the early 90s the bike path and everything else down along there and so this immediately became a big concern; and as we worked at it we discovered all the issues of water quality,” Mulvey says.

Mulvey shows me on a map where storm water roars down the steep slope from the street to South Shore Yacht Club.

The beach is nestled beyond its docks.

“This is the area we’re talking about; this is Iron Street and this is Nock Street; they go down into the parking area,” Mulvey says.

The park group planted a rain garden next to the asphalt lot – hoping to capture some of the storm water’s pollutants.

“We wanted to but it right there, but they said it would just wash away. But we wanted to get right where the water was leaving the parking lot and entering the lake,” Mulvey says.

Even though the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District installed an additional system nearer the beach, Mulvey says…

“Within a year or two the trench filled up and nobody ever cleaned it up. So one of the things the park watch wants to do is to get MMSD and the state and the county back together to clean out the ramp, and refurbish the rain garden,” Mulvey says.

Meanwhile, Mulvey says discussions are underway between Milwaukee County and South Shore Yacht Club.

“They’re talking about pervious materials, they’re talking about swales; they’re talking about correcting the tilt so that it doesn’t all flow right into the lake,” Mulvey says.

Mulvey remains focused on what the group CAN do – raise money for more rain gardens – but she admits to frustration; it took nine years of nudging and prodding to repair the breakwater.

While a handful of kids frolic in the water, Cheryl Nenn tells me it’s going to take more than impervious pavement and rain gardens to improve its quality.

Nenn works with the group, Milwaukee Riverkeeper. It routinely monitors the water.

“The problem is we have old pipes and we have a lot of old sewage pipes in the same trenches as the storm water pipes. As someone can imagine, you have a crack in an old storm water pipe and a crack in old sewage pipe, you start getting cross mixing. And then sometimes that human waste is finding its way into the lake via these storm water pipes.” Nenn says.

Nenn says the good news is the community knows how to fix the plumbing.

Sandra McLellan with the UWM School of Freshwater Sciences agrees. The scientist pinpoints genetic markers in storm water, so researchers can decipher what to fix first.

“We’ve monitored and done research to almost prove, yes THIS is when we see the bacteria go from the outfall and it impacts the beach; and this is how much we see runoff the parking lot. So we’ve been able to be much more quantitative about these sources, which helps us figure out what we should be fixing first,” McLellan says.

She says, unfortunately for South Shore Beach, there are multiple sources. However, one solution may be to move the beach about 100 yards south – so it’s no longer within the breakwater.

“For ten years we’ve done this paired testing – the existing beach and then a site further down; and just 150 meters down the shoreline; water quality is 10 times better,” McLellan says.

Where the wall ends, water is free to ebb and flow more naturally.

Milwaukee County has gingerly dipped its toe into the idea of moving the beach.

McLellan says, what the community would have to come to terms with, is the sticker shock.