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Is Milwaukee County Plan Enough to Make South Shore Beach Swimmable?

People love South Shore Park in Bay View. But it’s harder to love its beach. It is chronically closed because of high E. coli levels.

Tonight, the chair of the Milwaukee County Board will outline a plan to tackle some of South Shore’s pollution problems. The key strategy is to replace a large adjacent parking lot with porous pavement.

Sharon Reinelt has lived a hop, skip and a jump from South Shore Park since 1974.

“I used to bring my boys down to the beach and it actually used to be crowded. And I used to come down right behind the pavilion here, they used to freeze it over and flood it and they would have ice skating in winter down here. So I would to see some of that coming back,” Reinelt says.

A mom who bring her young sons to the park today – and would like to see improvements is Inge Hansenthiel. She says they often bike or and walk to the lakefront.

“I think the yacht club is sort of an eye sore. It would be nice to see some of that parking lot and some those old cruddy things back there returned to its natural state,” Hansenthiel says.

Studies indicate that the main contributor to the poor water quality at South Shore is the run-off that spills down a steep drive toward the boat dock and beach.

The Milwaukee County Board has allocated $1.6 million to transform the hard pavement into a porous surface that would slow and stop at least some storm water from sweeping into the shore.

County plans also include adding rain gardens to absorb runoff.

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Hansenthiel says though, even if there would be fewer red signs warning swimmers to stay out of the water, she wouldn’t use South Shore Beach.

“When we go to the beach here we always go further down anyway where it’s a little wilder. Down here it’s kind of gross sometimes, it smells a little more badly usually,” Hansenthiel says.

Sandra McLellan has the science to back up the mom’s impressions.

McLellan is a researcher at UWM’s School of Freshwater Sciences, and she’s been sampling the water at South Shore for nearly fifteen years.

“When we go out and sample don’t just take water from beach – get it through the whole marina area and then we take samples up by the Russell Avenue area to the north and all the way down to Bay View Park to the south and we definitely see a gradient of water quality. The worst is right at the boat ramp and it gets better as you progress south,” McLellan says.

McLellan says water quality is 40 times better just south of the beach.

And runoff is not the only factor. A break water inhibits beach water from its natural flow. Further south, where there is a break in the wall, water circulates more freely.

Now McLellan will measure the impacts of water's circulation on how long any runoff stays trapped in the swimming area.

“We’re in the process of doing some intensive sampling starting next month all the way to September to really match the currents with some of the measurements we take,” she says.

McLellan calls the process “filling in the science gaps. And from that we’ll be able to say, water cleans out this much faster in one area than the other.”

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Kids enjoy South Shore Beach on a perfect summer's day.

There has been talk of moving the beach to the south.

While McLellan is recognized internationally as a leader in her field, she knows that selling science – especially when it would come at the huge cost of moving a county beach – is not easily achieved.

So she’s collaborating with experts in various fields in hopes of demonstrating the value of a healthy swimming spot to the local economy.

“To show us what a clean beach is worth versus a contaminated beach,” the scientist says.

McLellan says stay tuned for that data in the next year.

In the meantime, she says refashioning a parking lot with pervious pavement is a step in the right direction.

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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