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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

South Shore Beach: Advocates Push For Relocation After Years Of Debate, But Funding Remains Unclear

Susan Bence
South Shore beach has chronically been closed due to public health concerns.

South Shore Park in Bay View overlooks Lake Michigan. But while its greenspace and pavilion may be Milwaukee County Park gems, South Shore's beach has consistently ranked among the worst in the nation because of poor water quality. After years of discussion, a plan is inching forward to move the beach south where the water more naturally circulates.

Residents gathered Monday evening at the park pavilion above the beach to learn more about the plan.

The existing beach is next to a bustling marina. The beach has been plagued with, among other challenges, geese that love to hang out there and a breakwater that blocks healthy circulation.

One of the people worried about its water quality is Sandra McLellan, a researcher at UWM School of Freshwater Sciences. Her concern translated into years of research and data collection.

READ: South Shore Beach Water Quality Remains Murky Issue

“When we go out and sample, we don’t just take water from the beach site but we go out by boat and get it through that whole marina area and then we take a lot of samples up by the Russell Avenue area to the north and then all the way to Bay View Park to the south. And we definitely see a gradient of water quality – the worst water quality, unfortunately, is right the boat ramp,” McLellan explains. 

Credit Susan Bence
Resident signing in at the Monday evening South Shore beach relocation meeting.

The boat ramp is located just north of the beach and she says the water quality gets better as you go south.

McLellan collected data for 15 years to assess the two sites side by side.

READ: Is Milwaukee County Plan Enough To Make South Shore Beach Swimmable?

Kiara Caldwell, one of the people who worked in McLellan's lab, came to see the proposed plan Monday evening.

“I would not take my kids swimming down here — that’s what we were finding,” Caldwell says. "You know E. coli can live in a beach for seven years."

Caldwell is glad the knowledge she helped amass influenced moving the beach south. And she’s pleased that larger grained sand will blanket the new beach to allow water to percolate down into the lake rather than holding it in place.

"So it won't hold E. coli in the same way, that’s brilliant. It’s such a good use of our resources to fix this situation," Caldwell says.

Rob Wright is among the team of engineers who came up with four alternativesto tackle South Shore beach’s chronic contamination. After putting each to the modeling test, Wright says the top choice quickly stood out above the rest.

"What we call hydrodynamic modeling to look at what the induced currents would be. This one rose to the top at that point," Wright says.

Next, he says the team did particle tracking.

"We put a drop of E.coli into the model and we’re going to track where it goes. This had the fastest and quickest way to disperse any E.coli that may have been present at the beach and then it prohibited E.coli out in the water from actually coming here and getting stuck," Wright says.

The meeting was informal. Residents could chat and ask questions of Wright and others working on the South Shore beach relocation.

Paulette and Ed Litkowski have lived a block away for nearly 50 years. They love the park and so did their kids as they grew up.

"The kids were able to use the beach and there was never any bacteria and it was never closed. It is because there are more ducks and geese that are here now? Why back 47 years ago were we able to use the beach more and it was never closed?" Paulette Litkowski says. "Maybe we were getting bacteria then? Maybe they didn't have the testing and we didn't realize it? But they [our kids] were never sick."

The Litkowskis say they left the meeting with more questions, including what it was going to cost and where would the money come from.

Brennan Dow, with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, says the estimated cost ranges between $6 and $8 million. Dow says the project could qualify for federal funding through Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, commonly called GLRI.

"Beaches specifically, a majority of time it’s 100% GLRI funded. However, there’s a caveat in there — they always like to see different types of partners bringing amounts of money to the table," Dow says.

Dow adds that not only is the South Shore beach project competing with projects proposed throughout the Great Lakes Basin, three other local beaches are on what's called the Milwaukee Estuary Area of Concern list. 

Still, South Shore beach project advocates hope that within two years its relocation might begin.

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Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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