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Checking in: How McKinley Beach is doing post-restoration and why there are no lifeguards

After three-plus years of construction, Milwaukee’s McKinley Beach reopened earlier this summer.
Photo provided by Sarah Toomsen
Milwaukee County Parks
After three-plus years of construction, Milwaukee’s McKinley Beach reopened earlier this summer.

It’s been over a month since the Milwaukee County Parks reopened McKinley Beach — it was initially closed in 2020 after at least four people drowned in dangerous currents.

Since then, the beach has gone under a $1 million construction project to address erosion and riptide concerns and lower the depth of the water.

But like all county beaches, McKinley Beach still has no lifeguards on duty.

To learn more about the reconstruction project and lifeguard staffing, Lake Effect’s Xcaret Nuñez spoke with Sarah Toomsen, the principal landscape architect and assistant director of Planning at Milwaukee County Parks. She also spoke with Andrea Wallace, the assistant director of Recreation and Business Services, also for the parks system.

Editor’s note: This interview took place weeks before two bodies were recovered from the McKinley Marina, which is near McKinley Beach. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell me about the new design of the beach.

Sarah Toomsen: So the new design of the beach is actually the old design of the beach. We looked back at the original construction plans for the beach, and that was one of five options that we studied when we looked at the situation at McKinley Beach and evaluated the possible impacts that had caused drownings and near drownings. And were the reason for the closure of the beach.

So when we considered all of the options available to us, which did range from full closure to reconfigurations of new beach designs, offshore jetties, establishing a wetland in place of the beach, and also considering the original design configuration of the beach, Milwaukee County elected to pursue reconfiguration of the beach, as it was initially designed in the late 1980s.

What are the key issues that this new beach design addresses?

ST: What we did when we began studying McKinley Beach was we looked at the existing conditions of the beach. We also looked at the drowning events and near drowning events that had taken place because we were able to pinpoint those dates, and look back at weather and other information to see if there was a certain situation that was present at McKinley Beach, that caused more risk for swimmers. That was a study that we did with a team of coastal engineers, landscape architects and other planners to take a look and consider all of those possibilities.

There are many things that happen at McKinley Beach, because of its unique location and configuration. What I mean by that is there is the government pier wall, which actually reflects waves into the beach, and then there are also waves that arrive and come straight into the beach between the breakwaters. So those waves together actually form transverse waves or waves that are in the shape of an ‘S,’ and can be quite complicated for an inexperienced swimmer.

We also realized that we had lost a lot of sand material at the beach. And between those breakwaters, where we had originally intended to have two and a half feet of water for wading, we had over six feet in 2020. So, through the loss of sand material, and the complicating factors of the waves that were arriving at the beach, currents were the result and, unfortunately, it was a risk to public safety.

When we have deeper water, the wave energy is able to come up into the beach farther, and it doesn't dissipate until it's within those beach breakwaters. So that is another additional force of energy that you actually can't see with your eye when you're looking at the water and saying, “[Should] I go for a swim today?” That's something that you would not be able to observe with your naked eye. So those things were present.

So all of these factors combined were addressed through the design that our coastal engineer team undertook. They used computer modeling, hydrodynamic modeling, which was really just an emergent science in the 1980s when the beach was initially designed. We were able to use that and use computers to suggest different events that could take place at the beach. Then we also went out to the site and physically used dye to put it in the water and test to see what was happening in certain conditions and used drone footage to evaluate what was actually happening within the water.

So it's addressing many different issues with the beach. 

ST: It's really a multitude of factors, which also makes it very hard to say what problem you need to solve to get to a safe beach. That is why we did the most we could to address all we could and bring this wading beach back to its original design, because we feel that that shallower water allows for less wave run up and less wave energy within the beach, which keeps swimmers safer.

It's been a month since the beach has reopened. How have you noticed the beach conditions improve or have things been going smoothly?

ST: So far, so good. We're getting positive reactions from folks who are able to enjoy the beach. Again, there is a lot more sand at the beach today than there was four years ago when we had deeper water and less sand play area. So people are enjoying that. It's a great place to bring families. We were able to do some renewals at the playground that's nearby and provide new playground surfacing. So it's a nice place to spend the day and people have been sharing their gratefulness for being able to visit the beach again.

What needs to be done to maintain this beach design for years to come?

ST: A part of what we're committed to is monitoring this beach into the future. That includes plans for bathymetric or underwater surveys so that we know how much sand material is present under the water and how deep the water is. We can't control Lake Michigan's water elevation, but we can react to it. So it's our hope that through that monitoring, we would be able to see a trend. If McKinley Beach was getting deeper over time or there were different current actions taking place, then we would be able to react and make a project to address that specific need. We also do plan to groom McKinley Beach as we do our swimming beaches more than weekly so that it stays clean, level and it's able for folks to safely use as they enter and exit the water.

Even with the increased safety measures that have been taken to create this new McKinley redesigned to beach, there are still no lifeguards on duty. So why why is that?

Andrea Wallace: So during the pandemic, our lifeguard corps was shut down in 2020. And so it has taken us several years to rebuild. So McKinley Beach, though, has not had lifeguards in decades. So Bradford Beach was the last beach that we guarded, and that was in 2019. So the goal would be to grow our lifeguard corps so that we can guard those beaches at some point. But our focus has been to guard our pools and get all of our aquatic centers open, continue to open our splash pads and wading pools. So really focusing on ensuring that there's access to water within each neighborhood and then the beach will focus on as we grow our lifeguard corps.

What goes into deciding whether a pool or beach will be staffed with lifeguards for the summer?

AW: I think equity and access to water is an incredibly important part of our community. So ensuring that we have our neighborhood pools open is primarily our focus right now.

Milwaukee County Parks saw 36% increase from last year's lifeguard recruitment efforts. But that's still not fully staffed. What's the ideal number?

AW: The ideal number would be about 250 lifeguards [we’re currently at 136 lifeguards]. So that would be able to open all of our pools and then give us the option of looking at the beaches. Guarding open water is far different than guarding a deep well pool. So we would have a lot of work cut out for us, but once we get to that point, we will definitely look at that. So we still have a lot of work ahead of us. But we've accomplished a lot this last year. So 36% increase is huge and we were able to open additional facilities this year with that extra staffing.

There are no lifeguards on duty at the beach, but there are programs like Beach Ambassadors on site. How do projects like these help support beachgoers.

AW: The Beach Ambassadors go out and provide information on how to swim in open water and ways to stay safe. So you'll find them walking up and down Bradford Beach or McKinley Beach, and handing out information and talking to people who are there, ensuring that you're keeping an eye on your kids and saying, “Hey, keep them within arms range,” that sort of thing. Providing tips on how to stay safe, pointing out the safety equipment that's there, [like] the ring buoys. Asking people, “What do you do if you get into an emergency?” So really just providing that information, and we work really closely with the Beach Ambassadors so that they can go out to our beaches and give that information to the public.

Xcaret is a WUWM producer for Lake Effect.
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