New Planning and Design Study to Address Ongoing Water Quality Problems at South Shore Beach

August 1, 2017

By Keith Schubert

Plan must include a study to relocate the beach

Native species have been planted on the north end of South Shore Beach. —Photo Jennifer Kresse

 Milwaukee County selection committee will have chosen an outside consultant by July 28 to complete a planning and design study addressing near-shore water quality and beach improvements at Milwaukee’s South Shore Beach. The county issued a request for proposal (RFP) June 30 seeking respondents.

The RFP requires respondents to propose three concepts for the county project with the objective “to have a beach with significantly fewer closures due to bacterial contamination.”

The study is funded by a $350,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency that was received by the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) and given to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and sub-awarded to Milwaukee County. The goal of the study will be to find ways to reduce beach closures and improve water quality  conditions. It is another step in ongoing work to improve water quality conditions at South Shore Park.

Jill Organ, chief of planning and development for Milwaukee County Parks, said the study will consider multiple alternatives to carry out this goal. The RFP notes that “the consultant should assume at least two of the concept plans, including the final design, will include the beach being relocated.”

The current budget limits the study parameters to planning, design, and construction-document preparation. The RPF notes that implementation of a construction phase is subject to approval of future funding. Although the construction amount has not yet been identified or secured, the RFP notes “there is a realistic expectation that funding will be pursued.”

The existing parking lot was regraded and reconstructed. The gardens and bioswales were added to filter storm-water runoff. A bird-inhabited sandbar was removed. A section of the Oak Leaf Trail was redirected to a newly constructed promenade along the water’s edge that is safer and more scenic than the previous route through the parking lot. —Photo Jennifer Kresse

Cody Varga of Waterford, Wis. filets a salmon in the South Shore Beach fish cleaning station. —Photo Jennifer Kresse

South Shore Beach is one of three public access points along the Lake Michigan shoreline in the southern half of Milwaukee County. It provides recreational access to thousands of Southeast Wisconsin residents. Beach amenities include a park, bike path, swimming, children’s playground, boat launch, boat wash station, fishing, and a fish cleaning station. It is also a prime spot for bicyclists as the Oak Leaf Trail runs through the park.

Because of poor water quality and high levels of E.coli, the beach has long been regarded as one of the worst in the nation and has more closures than any other beach on the Great Lakes.

In 2015, according to a study done by the county, 65 percent of water samples collected exceeded the recreational water quality standards for E.coli. These issues are what cause the beach to regularly rank among the worst in the nation for water quality and number of bacterial related closures, including seven in June of this year.

A study conducted by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Great Lakes
WATER Institute in 2008 showed that moving the beach 500 yards to the south would result in a 90 percent improvement in water quality, minimizing or eliminating beach closures.

The results of the 2013 “South Shore Beach Relocation Study” by consultants W.F. Baird and Associates suggested that the county spend $4.2 million constructing a second beach retention structure at the south end of the existing beach, as well as other improvements to the current location.

The changes were not made due to inadequate funding.

A section of the Oak Leaf Trail was moved to this newly constructed promenade along the water’s edge. The new trail location is safer and more scenic than the previous route through the parking lot. Benches are another of the new amenities that enhance the waterfront at South Shore Beach. —Photo Jennifer Kresse

Suggestions for moving South Shore Beach are the same today as in 2013 —runoff from the park and parking lot areas, excrement from gulls and other birds that occupy the beach’s sandbar, storm water runoff, sewage overflows, and a breakwater that limits exchange between water near the beach and the lake at large.“Because of where the beach is now, [with the water] trapped behind the break wall, there will always be problems because there is just not enough circulation,” said District 14 Milwaukee County Supervisor Jason Haas.

Haas said if the beach were to be moved south near Texas Avenue, the biggest issue would be accessibility.

Another problem is birds. Wherever humans go, so do problematic gulls and other waterfowl, Organ said. Birds contribute to fouling the water with E.coli.

The county recently wrapped up a $3.7 million green infrastructure-improvement project at the site of the beach. Milwaukee County partnered with the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, GLRI, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Freshwater Science, Wisconsin DNR, and the Fund for Lake Michigan.

The mini curb cut near the base of the sign allows boat water and rainwater to drain to the depression directly behind the curb. There, the water is filtered through the plants and soil to reduce lake pollution. —Photo Jennifer Kresse

Project improvements included dredging and upgrades to the boat launch, a new boat wash station, and native-plant landscaping. The existing parking lot was regraded and reconstructed. Rain gardens and bioswales were added to filter storm water runoff to reduce polluting the lake. A bird-inhabited sandbar was removed. A section of the Oak Leaf Trail was moved to a newly constructed promenade along the water’s edge that is safer and more scenic than the previous route through the parking lot.

These improvements might not be sufficient to meet clean beach water standards though, as indicated by the text of the RFP that stipulates a plan and design that includes the possible relocation of the beach.

Katherine Keller and Jennifer Kresse contributed to this report. 

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