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The Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act (BEACH Act) signed into law on October 10, 2000, amends the federal Clean Water Act (CWA), incorporating provisions intended to reduce the risk of illness to users of the Nation's recreational waters. The BEACH Act authorizes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to award program development and implementation grants to eligible States, Territories, Tribes, and local governments to support microbiological testing and monitoring of coastal recreation waters, including the Great Lakes, that are adjacent to beaches or similar points of access used by the public. BEACH Act grants also provide support for development and implementation of programs to notify the public of the potential exposure to disease-causing microorganisms in coastal recreation waters. EPA encourages coastal States and Territories to apply for BEACH Act Grants for Program Implementation (referred to as Implementation Grants) to implement effective and comprehensive coastal recreation water monitoring and public notification programs. CWA section 406(i) authorizes appropriations of up to $30 million per year to develop and implement beach programs. Unfortunately, only about one-third that amount has been authorized each year since the program's inception. For fiscal year 2014, the total fund available for BEACH Act grants was $9.55 million. Funding beyond 2012 has been in jeopardy, since EPA's budget requests for this program in FY2013 and FY2014 were ZERO (money for testing in 2013 and 2014 was ultimately allocated as part of Continuing Resolutions to resolve the Federal Budget impasse) and there is also no money for beach testing in the FY2015 budget. It is very discouraging to have to fight for this basic funding to protect the public's health at the beach every year. Thankfully, there is a growing movement to provide stable funding. If available, funds are allocated to the states and territories based on a formula which uses three factors that are readily available and verifiable: (1) Length of beach season, (2) miles of beach and (3) number of people that use the beaches. Wisconsin was eligible for a $217,000 grant in fiscal year 2014. While no specific figures are available, local health departments often have to carry some of the costs of the Wisconsin Great Lakes Beach Monitoring and Notification Program because funding for the program is insufficient.
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) contracts with the United States Geological Survey (USGS) to update and maintain their water quality database and manage their BEACH Health website.
Portions of the following discussion are taken from NRDC's report Testing the Waters, A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches, June 2014. NRDC's report evaluates beach monitoring data relative to EPA's recommended Beach Action Value (BAV). The BAV is a more protective threshold than the national allowable bacteria levels used in previous years to trigger beach advisories. The EPA considers the BAV to be a "conservative, precautionary tool for making beach notification decisions."
NRDC ranked Wisconsin 23th in Beachwater Quality (out of 30 states). 14% of samples exceeded EPA's new BAV standards for designated beach areas in 2013.
Wisconsin has public beaches along 55 miles of Lake Superior and Lake Michigan coastline. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) coordinates the state’s beach monitoring program and administers BEACH Act grants. Beachgoers can learn about beach closings and advisories on the Wisconsin Beach Health website.
In June 2012, the city of Racine began using rapid molecular methods (quantitative polymerase chain reaction, or qPCR) to determine whether to issue water quality notifications to swimmers at North Beach and Zoo Beach. These are the first locations in the nation where beach management decisions rely on DNA-based measurements of E. coli. Previously approved methods for determining levels of fecal indicator bacteria in beachwater depend on the growth of bacteria colonies in cultures and require 18 to 24 hours to produce results. The delay between sample collection and results means swimmers do not know until the next day if the water they swam in was contaminated. The delay can also mean that beaches remain under advisory or closed after water quality has improved.
In addition to qPCR, Racine has also developed beach-specific models using the U.S. EPA's Virtual Beach software program. Virtual Beach is a predictive model building tool that turns sanitary survey data into estimations of fecal indicator bacteria concentrations. By using a "Nowcast" model in conjunction with qPCR, Racine can consistently deliver same-day test results, generally within three hours of sample collection. This work demonstrates that sanitary surveys not only are useful for identifying pollution sources, but also support rapid analytical and decision-making tools.
Sanitary survey data have driven a variety of coastal remediation measures in Racine, including construction of a wetland to manage stormwater, restoration of dunes to infiltrate runoff from impervious surfaces, alterations in beach grooming techniques to reduce bacteria in beach sands, and improved best management practices. The use of sanitary survey data for identifying pollution sources has now gone upstream, as Racine officials use a modified version of this tool to assess infrastructure integrity and tributary health. Working with the School of Freshwater Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee to analyze stormwater samples for human-specific Bacteroides markers, they have identified and remediated three sites where sanitary sewage was infiltrating the storm sewer system. Sewage can enter storm drains when sewage lines leak into the drains, when inadvertent cross-connections are made, or when toilets or other sewage-related equipment in residences or commercial buildings are illegally connected to storm drains.
During heavy storms, bacteria carried by the Pike River contaminate water quality at three of the five beaches in Kenosha. The city, in conjunction with the Racine Health Department, conducts stormwater monitoring and microbial, chemical, and physical assessments within the Pike River watershed in support of a watershed restoration plan that will improve beachwater quality. In 2012, the city began reconfiguring a stormwater outfall at the beach in Pennoyer Park, and vegetated swales that reduce the amount of stormwater runoff will be installed within the watershed. Residents are also encouraged to install rain gardens in order to reduce the volume of stormwater that reaches the beach.
Thanks to projects funded by the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, extensive sanitary surveys (with special sampling studies if necessary) are also being conducted at all Lake Michigan and Lake Superior beaches that are unmonitored or under-monitored as well as those whose waters are listed as impaired. These cost-effective surveys identify pollution sources and in many cases also indicate ways to eliminate them. In some cases the surveys provide information about environmental conditions that can result in poor water quality; this can be useful for issuing preemptive closings at beaches without waiting for monitoring data to reveal an exceedance of water quality standards. For example, a sanitary survey may identify patterns of water currents that would be most likely to carry contaminated water to a beach. Sanitary surveys can also reveal techniques for shaping a beach so that Cladophora, a filamentous green alga that forms large mats and accumulates on beaches, is deposited in a confined area where it can be more easily removed. The mats smell noxious as they decay and also impact beachwater quality. They are associated with elevated fecal indicator bacteria counts—partly because they provide an environment where indicator bacteria can grow, and partly because they attract animals that deposit fecal material on the beach while feeding on the invertebrates and insects living in the mats. Sanitary survey data are now being used to develop beach redesign concept plans for the mitigation of identified pollution sources at 20 beaches on Lakes Michigan and Superior. Mitigation of pollution sources will reduce the number of beach advisories in Wisconsin.
The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative also funded projects to make it possible for more beach managers to use Nowcasting, a rapid method for predicting beach health conditions. Predictive models are useful because they allow advisories to be issued the day that bacteria levels are suspected to be high. In contrast, when advisories are issued on the basis of E. coli counts found using culture methods, they are issued the day after standards are exceeded because it generally takes 24 hours for culture results to be available. Moreover, many times, the culture results of samples taken the day a beach is placed under advisory reveal that the water quality was acceptable on the day of the advisory. The use of the Nowcast model should reduce the number of days that beaches are closed unnecessarily when water quality is good, as well as the number of days that beaches are left open when water quality is poor. Wisconsin has made Nowcasting a priority and worked to develop user-friendly tools to support it as a way to be effective in using the limited funds available for sampling while increasing the public notifications of beach condtions. These tools are linked to Wisconsin's Beach Health website, which, in turn is connected to the BeachCast mobile application developed by the Great Lakes Commission.
Most Lake Michigan beaches are monitored from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend; monitoring at most Lake Superior beaches begins in late June. Local health departments conduct the water quality monitoring. Samples are taken in knee-deep water, 6 to 12 inches below the surface. Great Lakes beaches are assigned high, medium, and low priority for monitoring based on the potential for impacts from stormwater runoff, beach usage and population density, waterfowl loads, and the proximity of wastewater treatment outfalls and farms.
Additional sampling is required after heavy rain or other major pollution events, and beaches are resampled immediately when an advisory or closing is issued. States that monitor more frequently after an exceedance is found will tend to have higher percent exceedance rates and lower total closing/advisory days than they would if their sampling frequency did not increase after an exceedance was found.
Wisconsin issues both closings and advisories. A beachwater sample with 236 to 999 cfu/100 ml of E. coli generally results in an advisory, and a sample equal to or greater than 1,000 cfu/100 ml of E. coli generally results in a closing. The geometric mean standard of 126 cfu/100 ml for at least 5 samples collected over a 30-day period may also be used to make closing and advisory decisions at high-priority beaches. Some counties with longer beaches combine multiple samples along the beach before analyzing for bacteria; others take an average value of multiple samples analyzed separately and make closing and advisory decisions for the entire beach based on the composite or average results.
At the discretion of local beach managers, some beaches are closed or placed under advisory after rainfall exceeds a predetermined threshold, such as 1 inch of precipitation in a 24-hour period. In some locations preemptive advisories or closures are issued after sewer or stormwater overflows or incidences of reported illnesses.
Milwaukee uses predictive models in addition to monitoring to determine advisories for a few of its beaches. Ozaukee County uses a Nowcast model (developed using EPA's Virtual Beach software) at Upper Lake Park Beach, and in 2012 Racine County also received approval to use the Nowcast model. In those counties, an advisory may be based on evaluation of the results of the rapid detection methods. If a Nowcast indicates that an advisory is necessary and conditions change during the day, the public health official may analyze additional samples collected later in the day and change the status of the beach on the same day.
WDNR reported in their Annual Report, 2013 Beach Season:
Without the committed group of stakeholders and willingness to adapt to uncertain circumstances, significantly less monitoring would have occurred at Wisconsin’s coastal beaches during 2013. EPA Region V’s efforts to regularly communicate funding status and expedite Wisconsin’s grant award mitigated the effects of the delayed funding and provided our program the ability to make adjustments in a more timely fashion.
In preparation for the 2013 season, county public health partners were given an opportunity to make adjustments to beach priorities and measurements. As a result, one beach was elevated to a high priority and there was some adjustment in which of the low priority beaches were monitored. Two beaches, Sam Myers in Racine and South Shore Rocky in Milwaukee were removed from the official beach lists. Data collected as part of the GLRI-funded sanitary surveys was used to adjust beach lengths. These changes were posted on the DNR website and the public was given an opportunity to comment on the changes.
The strategy for allocating funding placed a priority on support for Wisconsin’s Beach Health web application operated by USGS because it both manages the data and provides public notification of beach conditions. Funding for monitoring considered the beach priority (Tier), availability to leverage other funding or partnership arrangements, locations with operational Nowcasts, travel considerations and status on the 303(d) impaired waters list. This meant that low priority (Tier 3) beaches were unfunded unless the beaches were listed as impaired or monitoring was funded locally. Likewise, travel costs associated with monitoring beaches on islands were too costly to be funded. With few exceptions, these beaches are in Tier 3.
Budget reductions and grant timing drove our decision to once againreduce the minimum required sampling frequency at high priority beaches (Tier 1) to twice per week, recognizing that Nowcasts in place at 20 beaches supported public notifications and partners have the latitude to voluntarily increase monitoring at any beaches based on local needs and funding. Medium priority beaches (Tier 2) with Nowcasts received funding for sampling twice per week and beaches listed as impaired on the 303(d) list were prioritized for sampling once per week. Federal restrictions on how grant funds could be used prevent local partners from collecting samples for the explicit purpose of identification and control of pollution sources leading to elevated bacteria levels. Any efforts to do so were done independent of the BEACH Act funding.
Based on the funding strategy, fewer counties and health departments were supported with BEACH Act funding in 2013 than in past years. Brown and Iron Counties received no BEACH Act funding for 2013 (and 2014) because their beaches were all ranked as low priority (Tier 3) and none were listed on the impaired waters list. Lake Michigan beaches received analytical support for a fourteen week sampling season while Lake Superior beaches (Ashland, Bayfield, Douglas, and Iron counties) operated during a twelve to thirteen week sampling season, attributable to late ice out (mid-May) in Lake Superior. In southeast Wisconsin (from South Milwaukee to the state line), Racine Public Health Department coordinated monitoring with the local health departments, making it possible to leverage funding and staff resources.
Beach monitoring continued voluntarily at some beaches and was reported using Wisconsin’s Beach Health public notification website. WDNR provided alternate funding for two beaches in Douglas County that are listed as impaired waters.
Similar to past years, beach advisories and/or closures were posted using signs placed on the beach property in addition to information being provided on an Internet Web Site (http://www.wibeaches.us). Decisions to post an advisory were generally triggered by the amount of E. coli present as compared to 235 colonies/100 mL threshold recommended by USEPA, results of rapid lab methods (qPCR) or statistical “Nowcast” models. Beach closure decisions were generally based on E. coli results of 1000 colonies/100 mL. In some cases, advisories or closures were prompted by rainfall, known or suspected sewage bypasses, or other factors that have been linked to high E. coli counts in the past.
A number of Lake Michigan communities have monitored the water quality at their beaches for several decades. Many, including Milwaukee, Racine, Kenosha, and Manitowoc have been working together for several years to address the challenges of pollution and beach closings. In 1999, the City of Milwaukee Health Department received a grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Environmental Monitoring for Public Access for Community Tracking (EMPACT) program to enhance the efforts of this group and expand beach monitoring efforts in the Milwaukee-Racine area. The Beach Health website was created in order to improve public notification and outreach.
In March 2001, the DNR solicited the assistance of a 12-member BEACH Act Workgroup with local health department officials and interested parties. The goal of the Workgroup was to assist the Department in developing a consistently implemented beach monitoring and public notification program. To develop a program that meets EPA's published guidance and performance criteria DNR had to:
Because there were no maps, files, or other information listing public beaches and their locations all the public beaches had to be located. After many phone calls and Internet searches, 60 beaches were identified.
The first step in the process of identifying the public beaches was to define "beach". In keeping with the BEACH Act, the Department defined "beach" as:
"A publicly owned shoreline or land area, not contained in a man-made structure, located on the shore of Lake Michigan or Lake Superior, that is used for swimming, recreational bathing or other water contact recreational activity."
Next, the DNR hired field staff who drove the entire coast of Lake Michigan and Lake Superior searching for and visiting beaches. They identified 173 public beaches along the two lakes, and staff literally walked the coast using global positioning system (GPS) and geographic information system (GIS) technologies to geo-locate each beach. County maps showing the location of each beach were developed. The maps identify coastal recreation waters, points of access by the public, length of beach, and possible sources of pollution.
In addition to collecting the GIS data, DNR assessed the effectiveness of current notification procedures and identified the audience. Field staff conducted a random survey of 164 beach users, asking for general information about who they are, how they use the beach, and what they know (and want to know) about using their beaches.
During 2001-02, Beach Health was funded by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) and Wisconsin Coastal Management Program (WCMP). Beach Health grew with the addition of data from several more Lake Michigan coastal municipalities to the site. In addition, an in-water automated monitoring station transmits real-time data to the Beach Health website. The Milwaukee Health Department uses these data in a pilot water-quality predictive model.
In December 2002 and January 2003, public meetings were held around the state to present the BEACH Act Workgroup's proposals and get comments from the public. Public comment was instrumental in beach ranking decisions. The locals were more familiar with the beaches in their areas and gave correct names, locations, and information on beach popularity. While they were generally very positive and excited about the program the public was concerned that more wasn't being done to eliminate sources of fecal contamination to beaches.
In 2003, water-quality data from about 117 new beach locations were added to Beach Health. Maps of beaches by county are available along with other information on WDNR's Beaches Website describing the Wisconsin Great Lake monitoring efforts. Thus, visitors to the Beach Health website are now able to view water quality data and beach advisories for Great Lakes beaches all across Wisconsin.
The 2003 beach season marked the first comprehensive beach monitoring program in Wisconsin. Funded by a grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is directing the monitoring program at the Great Lakes coastal waters of Lake Michigan and Lake Superior. The program allows for prompt public notification whenever bacteria levels exceed EPA's established criteria. It also helps communities along the lakeshore improve their ability to monitor and notify beach users of the risks associated with high bacteria levels.
Following is a description of the advisory signs posted on the Website and at beaches throughout the state:
Good or Open - An advisory of "Good" or "Open" means that the results from the most recent monitoring for E. coli bacteria were below the USEPA recommended criteria of 235 cfu/100 mL (single sample) or 126 cfu/100 mL (geometric mean). USEPA has determined that when implemented in a conservative manner, these criteria are protective of gastrointestinal illness resulting from water contact recreation.
Caution - An advisory of "Caution" means that the results from the most recent monitoring for E. coli bacteria exceeded the USEPA recommended criteria of 235 cfu/100 mL (single sample) or 126 cfu/100mL (geometric mean). This sign indicates that there is an elevated risk of gastrointestinal illness resulting from water contact recreation.
Closed - An advisory of "Closed" means that the results of the most recent monitoring for E. coli bacteria exceeded 1000 cfu/100 mL. This means that serious risk of gastrointestinal illness resulting from water contact recreation may be present.
Beach closures or advisories are reported here.
Wisconsin formerly had a Beach Health Hotline 1-800-441-4636 x1460. Unfortunately, the Hotline was discontinued in 2006 when grant funding ended with the cooperating agency, UW-Extension. However, local health department phone numbers replaced the hotline number on all beach signs and are listed on the Beach Health Website.
The Wisconsin Beach Program is described on WDNR's website.
An article "Protecting Beach Health in Door County" appears in the Wisconsin Great Lakes Chronicle 2005 magazine. Door County has 250 miles of Lake Michigan and Green Bay shoreline. They have performed a substantial amount of source identification work to determine and correct sources of E. coli bacteria detected at beaches. As a result of the source identification project, two beaches in the City of Sturgeon Bay now issue preemptive beach closures based on rainfall, since analysis of rainfall events at several beaches with stormwater outlet pipes revealed that E. coli concentrations stayed above 235 MPN for eight to 12 hours after rain events of 0.5 inches. The City of Sturgeon Bay and the Town of Gibralter have made improvements to their stormwater discharge areas on the beach to improve swimmer safety and beach health.
Additional details concerning source identification studies, source mitigation, and 2011 water quality observations in individual counties along Wisconsin's Lake Michigan and Lake Superior shorelines can be found in the Annual Report 2011 Beach Season.
The Great Lakes Commission (GLC), in partnership with LimnoTech and the Great Lakes states, has developed a free smartphone application that provides convenient, public access to swim advisories and other environmental conditions information for more than 1,800 beaches in the Great Lakes region. Funded by the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, the myBeachCast application (app) retrieves locational and advisory data for Great Lakes and inland lake beaches in the eight Great Lakes states. The app also features real-time and forecasted weather and lake conditions (e.g., water temperature, wave heights, wind speed/direction) and nearshore marine forecasts, drawn from the Great Lakes Observing System (GLOS) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). myBeachCast allows users to discover local beaches based on the user’s location, view beaches and their status on a map, save favorite beaches, and get driving directions. To download myBeachCast, go to http://beachcast.glin.net.
The Great Lakes Regional Collaboration (GLRC) Strategy identifies coastal health as a priority recognizing the significance of beaches to the economic well-being, health and quality of life of the region's citizens. The GLRC Clean Beaches Initiative is an effort to help encourage the implementation of best beach management practices, including the use of sanitary surveys and actions to remediate contamination sources, as outlined by the GLRC Strategy. The GLRC Clean Beaches Initiative workgroup is comprised of federal, state, local, and tribal partners.
The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), through its Great Lakes Beach Health Initiative, has been conducting research to advance the science of beach health in the Great Lakes for over a decade. The overall mission of this work is to provide science-based information and methods that will allow beach managers to more accurately make beach closure and advisory decisions, understand the sources and physical processes affecting beach contaminants, and understand how science-based information can be used to mitigate and restore beaches and protect the public. The work consists of four science elements—real-time assessments; pathogens and microbial source tracking; coastal processes; and data analysis, interpretation, and communication.
A multi-agency Advanced Monitoring Initiative project entitled Developing Water and Land Tools to Forecast Bacterial Exposure in Beach Settings was initiated in 2007 to develop, synthesize, compare, and promote tools that can provide early warnings about pathogen indicator levels. Led by researchers and tool developers from EPA, USGS, NOAA, state and local governments, and universities, this project integrates several approaches that link environmental observations to the forecasting of microbial exposure, including statistical, hydrodynamic/process-based, and non-point source pollution models.
As part of this project, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) is conducting technical assistance and outreach to promote available decision-support tools that enable beach managers to predict recreational water quality in real-time. The principal focus has been on “Virtual Beach-Model Builder” (VBMB) software, which was developed by EPA to provide beach managers with a free, user-friendly tool for building and deploying multiple linear regression (MLR) models for predicting beach water quality based on meteorological, nearshore, and onshore conditions.
Mike Friis, Program Manager
Beach Health Program Coordinator
Office of the Great Lakes
Division of Water
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources
Mary Ellen Bruesch
Environmental and Communicable Disease Specialist
City of Milwaukee Health Department
Phone: (414) 286-5744
City of Racine Health Department
Sandra McLellan, Ph.D.
Great Lakes WATER Institute
Phone: (414) 382-1710
Door County Soil and Water Conservation Department
Phone: (920) 746-2214
Wisconsin Health Department Contact Information
In 2013, Wisconsin reported 193 coastal beaches and beach segments, 101 of which were monitored. Of all reported beach monitoring samples, 14% exceeded the Beach Action Value (BAV) of 190 E. coli bacteria colony forming units (cfu) per 100 ml freshwater in a single sample. NRDC considers all reported samples individually (without averaging) when calculating the percent exceedance rates in this analysis. This includes duplicate samples and reported samples taken outside the official beach season, if any.
The beaches with the highest percent exceedance rates of the BAV in Wisconsin were Pennoyer Park Beach in Kenosha County (47%), South Shore Beach in Milwaukee County (42%), Red Arrow Park Beach Manitowoc in Manitowoc County (39%), Maslowski Beaches in Ashland County (35%), and Kohler-Andrae State Park North and South Picnic Beaches in Sheboygan County (32%).
For a bar chart showing a 5-year water quality trend, see NRDC's report.
In their 2013 Beach Season Annual Report WDNR provided the following county-by-county statistics for the percentage of samples that exceeeded the 235 CFU/100 ml limit for the years 2003 through 2013:
Source: WDNR, 2014
WDNR also reported:
In 2013, monitoring occurred at a total of 110 beaches, of which 26 locations monitored voluntarily. Local jurisdictions implemented Nowcasting at 21 beaches, with some health departments using it as the primary tool for posting public notifications and others using it in conjunction with other decision tools. A total of 3145 samples were collected (compared to 4,936 samplesin 2012) that were reported on the Beach Health Website (http://www.wibeaches.us). At some locations, results reported were composite of multiple locations so the total sample numbers has been adjusted to avoid double counting. Of the samples collected 12.3% exceeded the water quality advisory threshold of 235 CFU/100mL. Of those exceedances, 3.1% of all samples collected exceeded the 1,000 CFU/100mL threshold for beach closure. At face value the percentage of samples exceeding the advisory threshold was less than 2012; however, these numbers are not truly comparable given the changes in beaches monitored, monitoring frequency adjustments, and nowcast implementation.
See the 2013 Beach Season Report for a county-by-county discussion of actions being taken to improve water quality at the beaches.
Bradford Beach in Milwaukee County has been retrofitted with rain gardens, dunes and grassy swales to intercept and filter stormwater runoff. Stevan Keith, a county environmental engineer, estimates that the combined impact of the installations should cut about 90% of the stormwater from reaching the beach. Twenty percent of the Bradford Beach water samples collected during the 2006 swimming season had bacteria concentrations over the BEACH Act limits. This Lake Michigan beach has apparently now overcome many of its problems: litter, algae, combined sewer overflows, and huge populations of seagulls. The city and several private companies have funded projects to clean up and revitalize the beach, including a million-dollar project in 2008 to install rain gardens at the beach to treat runoff draining from the city’s storm sewers. Also in 2008, the local Miller Brewing Company donated $500,000 toward restoring the beach, including water-quality monitoring, algae removal, and bird control.
In January 2012 it was announced that four of Wisconsin's Lake Michigan beaches were removed the state's proposed biennial "impaired waters" list. Cleanup efforts apparently have reduced E. coli problems at Point Beach State Forest, Neshotah Park and Fischer Park beaches in Manitowoc County and Crescent Beach in Kewaunee County, according to the state Department of Natural Resources, which compiles the list.
In June 2013, U.S. EPA released its latest data about beach closings and advisories for the 2012 swimming season. Note that for some states the data is incomplete, making state-to-state or year-to-year comparisons difficult. Here's EPA's BEACH Report for Wisconsin's 2012 Swimming Season. EPA no longer publishes this report.
The United States Geological Survey maintains a website, Wisconsin Water Science Center. This site is a valuable source of information including current projects, online reports, publications, maps, real-time water conditions, and educational outreach material for teachers and students.
The University of Wisconsin Extension website provides a great link to water resources programs in Wisconsin.
There are discharges from sewage outfalls into the Great Lakes. Wisconsin DNR has mapped sewage outfalls for facilities that have specific permits. Outfalls for general permits are not mapped. Outfalls were last mapped in October 2001. There are no plans to update them in the future, due to a lack of money and staff to continue this effort. Wisconsin DNR stores outfall data in a database, which is available upon request.
The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) operates two treatment plants that treat and discharge about 200 million gallons per day (during dry weather) of wastewater into Lake Michigan. The two treatment plants are the Jones Island Wastewater Treatment Plant and the South Shore Wastewater Treatment Plant.
The MMSD website contains the following discussion of combined sewer overflows:
"Some sewers capture both wastewater from your home's showers, sinks and toilets along with all the rain that runs off of streets, yards and parking lots. They're called combined sewers. Found mostly in the older sections of Milwaukee and Shorewood, combined sewers represent about 5% of the District's total service area. One of the great benefits of the combined sewer system is that it delivers highly polluted stormwater runoff to the wastewater treatment plant for cleaning. However, during heavy rains, there may be a combined sewer overflow or CSO. When these overflows happen, stormwater pollutants go into the rivers and Lake Michigan along with untreated sewage, which may contain potentially harmful bacteria."
MMSD has constructed a deep tunnel system to provide more holding capacity for rain-induced sewer flows. The tunnel was placed in operation in 1994. This has greatly reduced the number of CSO events. From 1990 to 1993 there were 63 to 98 CSOs per year, whereas from 1994 to 2002 the annual number of CSOs ranged from 1 to 6. The annual volume of CSOs and SSOs (Sanitary Sewer Overflows) was 8 billion to 9 billion gallons before construction of the deep tunnel and has ranged from 171 million to 4.1 billion gallons after the tunnel.
Despite this "good news", a substantial amount of controversy exists regarding continued MMSD operational practices that may contribute to discharges of untreated sewage to Lake Michigan. For more information on this, see the Alliance for the Great Lakes Website.
Heavy rains in June 2009 resulted in nearly 1 billion gallons of untreated sewage and storm water spilling out of Milwaukee-area sanitary and storm sewers into local rivers and Lake Michigan.
MMSD released 822,000 gallons of partially treated sewage to Lake Michigan in March 2006. Between March and July 2004 more than 12 million gallons of "virtually raw sewage" was dumped into Lake Michigan from MMSD's Jones Island Wastewater Plant.
MMSD is planning a two-mile, $92.4 million extension of the deep tunnel sewage storage system on Milwaukee's north side. The new tunnel would provide 27 million gallons of storage space, bringing the entire tunnel system capacity to 520 million gallons. Construction was scheduled to begin in 2007 and be completed by 2010.
In February 2007 it was announced that MMSD would spend up to $450,000 over two years to expand its investigation into sources of human fecal bacteria found in municipal storm sewers discharging to local Lake Michigan beaches and the Milwaukee, Menomonee and Kinnickinnic rivers. The study will help municipalities within MMSD's service area identify storm sewer discharges containing human fecal bacteria that could only come from sanitary sewers. MMSD will then work with communities to find leaking sanitary sewers, improper connections between sanitary and storm sewers, unknown overflow locations or other sources.
In early June 2008 Milwaukee's deep tunnel system was overwhelmed by intense rains that caused sewage to flow into the deep tunnel at an incredible rate of 10.4 billion gallons a day. The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District said about 685 million gallons of “combined sewer overflow” ended up in local waterways from the storms.
During the same storm, the city of Racine experienced about 7.8 million gallons of sewer system overflow during the weekend of June 7-8.
Nearly 1 billion gallons of untreated sewage and storm water - approximately double the 494 million gallon capacity of the deep tunnel system - spilled out of combined sanitary and storm sewers in central Milwaukee and eastern Shorewood into local rivers and Lake Michigan during intense rain in June 2009. The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District reported sewer overflows totaled 935.7 million gallons - one-third of the record set in June 2008. The 2.9 billion gallons spilled then marked the largest combined sewer overflow since the district's deep tunnel wastewater storage system opened in 1994. Several separate sanitary sewers under district control also overflowed during the storms, pouring an additional 56.1 million gallons of diluted sewage into waterways, the district says in the report.
A Great Lakes Sewage Report Card was published in November 2006 by Sierra Legal Defence Fund (now Ecojustice). The report states that over 24 billion gallons of sewage and wastewater discharge are dumped into the Great Lakes every year. Detroit, Michigan received the lowest grade in the survey, D, for its discharges into Lake Erie. The city receiving the highest grade was Green Bay, Wisconsin.
In late August 2007 record heavy rains overwhelmed the Racine’s Water and Wastewater Utility, prompting the discharge of 3.78 million gallons of untreated wastewater into the Root River and Lake Michigan.
Potential Pollution Sources is an evaluation of industrial and municipal wastewater discharges into the Lake Superior Drainage Basin in Wisconsin.
A series of articles in the Great Lakes Echo discuss stormwater and municipal wastewater issues throughout the Great Lakes that are impacting recreational water quality.
You can search here for data on raw sewage spills in Wisconsin.
See the Nonpoint Source Pollution website from Wisconsin DNR.
The 2001 Assessment states that in 1997 and again in 1999, Wisconsin adopted a series of interrelated administrative rules associated with the state's non-point source water pollution abatement program. These rules specify a process for development and dissemination of technical standards to implement, administer cost-sharing funds provided for compliance, specify criteria for determining whether cost-sharing is available, and specify procedures for review and approval of proposed local regulations necessary to achieve water quality standards. The Stormwater Permit Program is administered by the Department of Natural Resources.
The State of Wisconsin is taking a new approach to addressing nonpoint source pollution - a primary threat to the health of Wisconsin's water resources. Administrative rules to control polluted runoff from agricultural, non-agricultural and transportation sources went into effect Oct. 1, 2002. A companion administrative rule, ATCP 50 developed by the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) also became effective on that date. The Runoff Management Administrative Rules, fact sheets, and related documents can be downloaded from DNR's website. The Clean Water Coalition, an alliance of almost 40 conservation organizations representing more than 160,000 citizens have called the new rules "a victory for clean water and public health." "Wisconsin now has the toughest water quality law in the country for controlling polluted runoff, said Kerry Schumann, director of the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group.
In 2013, Wisconsin DNR partnered with U.S. EPA to develop a model-based assessment tool for all the watersheds in the state. This tool ranks each watershed based on many aspects of watershed condition, including water quality, hydrology, habitat, and biological condition. The assessment results are a modeled prediction of both overall watershed health and vulnerability, which are presented in a series of maps and ranking scores.
To meet the requirements of the federal Clean Water Act, the Wisconsin DNR developed the Wisconsin Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (WPDES) Storm Water Discharge Permit Program, which is regulated under the authority of ch. NR 216, Wis. Adm. Code. As part of the EPA National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, the WPDES Storm Water Program regulates discharge of storm water in Wisconsin from construction sites, industrial facilities, and selected municipalities.
The ultimate goal of the WPDES Storm Water Program is to prevent the transportation of pollutants to Wisconsin's water resources via storm water runoff.
In 2013 the Department of Natural Resources board changed shoreline development regulations, passed under the Doyle administration, that aimed to reduce runoff into lakes and rivers. The rules applying to property owners along lakes and rivers were made tougher in 2009. Those revisions, however, never really took effect, as landowners and some local governments complained about implementing the rules. Now the DNR has decided to allow more expansion of shoreline homes, and in some cases, the addition of more driveways and other surfaces that prevent rain from going directly into the ground. More info.
Beyond regulatory storm water management, the Department also supports a wide variety of voluntary storm water management activities. These include projects funded through the Urban Nonpoint Source and Storm Water and Targeted Runoff Management Grant Programs. The University of Wisconsin Extension and EPA Office of Wetlands, Oceans, and Watersheds have additional information available about storm water management from the scale of a residential rain garden through construction site erosion control plans for multi-acre construction sites.
Authorized by Section 6217 of the Coastal Zone Act Reauthorization Amendments of 1990, this amendment requires states and territories with approved coastal zone management programs to develop and implement coastal nonpoint programs. Coastal states were required to submit their coastal nonpoint programs to NOAA and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Seven management measures required in a coastal nonpoint pollution control plan include:
Wisconsin's Coastal Nonpoint Pollution Control Program, which incorporates the state's Nonpoint Source Program Redesign Initiative, was fully approved in 2003.
Examples of water quality and nonpoint source pollution initiatives funded by the WCMP include:
In 2003, because of its lack of regular beach water quality testing and an incidence of illnesses at a state park beach, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) listed Door County on its "Beach Bummer" list for poor water quality and inadequate beach monitoring program. In response, Door County worked with the WCMP (and a number of other partners including the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh) to conduct the Door County Beach Contamination Source Identification Project which helped the county to identify and prevent sources of nonpoint source pollution affecting its swimming beaches. Because of this effort, the NRDC recognized Door County in its 2005 “Beach Buddy” list. Door County (with continued funding from the WCMP) has since conducted follow-on studies to develop nonpoint pollution abatement measures and beach management plans, and to incentivize planning and construction practices for municipalities to reduce beach contamination.
Each spring the WCMP awards matching grants to reduce nonpoint source pollution. Local units of governments in the 15 coastal counties, state agencies, tribal governments, regional planning commissions, universities, colleges, technical schools, and non-profit organizations are all eligible. A request for proposals is made in late fall each year.
In April 2006 the Great Lakes Collaboration Implementation Act was introduced into Congress by Michigan Democratic Senators Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow and Republican Congressman Vernon Ehlers. It asks for more than $23 billion as part of the Great Lakes Regional Collaboration recommendations, with $10.5 billion of funding to clean polluted waters and prevent invasive species from entering the Great Lakes. The act allocates $13 billion for a nationwide fund for community sewer system upgrades.
Wisconsin Dept. of Natural Resources
Phone: (608) 850-3873
Mike Friis, Program Manager
Senior Water Resources Specialist - Urban Stormwater
Phone: (608) 266-9266
Nicole L. Richmond
Water Quality Specialist: TMDL Coordinator
Water Evaluation Section
Bureau of Watershed Management
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources
Public Information Manager
Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District
Phone: (414) 225-2077
Wisconsin's beach monitoring staff believe that the main causes of beach closures are urban runoff/rainfall, agricultural runoff/rainfall, and waterfowl/bird feces. The Wisconsin Beach Health website has a Reasons for Swim Advisories or Beach Closures page.
The state has identified areas with chronic postings or closures. Research programs are being conducted at some of these areas. The Great Lakes Water Institute is conducting some of these studies. Research is also conducted through UW-Oshkosh (Greg Kleinheinz), UW-Parkside (John Skalbeck), and the City of Racine, WI (Julie Kinzelman).
WDNR beach monitoring staff believe that excess nutrients (which lead to algal mats that have been linked to higher E. coli at the beaches), and non-point source pollution are the greatest regional threats to coastal water quality.
U.S. EPA and federal, state and local beach program partners developed standardized beach sanitary survey forms in 2007. These forms assist beach managers with a consistent approach to identify pollution sources, share information, and plan source remediation. The forms were successfully piloted by 61 Great Lakes beaches during the 2007 beach season, through EPA funding. The Great Lakes Regional Collaboration (GLRC) Clean Beaches Initiative is focused on broadening the use of these standard sanitary survey forms throughout the Great Lakes region. Beach managers, cities, tribes, and citizen volunteers are encouraged to use the standard sanitary survey forms and take this first critical step towards ensuring clean and safe beaches.
Wisconsin DNR's Beaches website has a "Beach Science" section with information on predicting conditions, tools and training (with several links to health research publications), and Interactive map – DNR’s Surface Water Data Viewer.
A huge amount of water quality information can be found on WDNR's Water Topics website.
Water Quality research projects funded by the Wisconsin Coastal Management Program include:
An article in the Great Lakes Echo in December 2012 discussed many of the water quality problems in the Great Lakes, including bacterial pollution, algal blooms and invasive species.
Wisconsin DNR's Impaired Waters website has information and reports regarding impaired waters (303(d) list), Integrated Water Quality Assessment Reports, and approved TMDLs.
In June 2009 President Obama appointed Cameron Davis, president of the Chicago-based Alliance for the Great Lakes, the first-ever Great Lakes “czar.” Mr. Davis will coordinate federal programs on the lakes, including efforts to clean up contaminated sediments, reduce existing pollution sources and work to stop the spread of invasive species. The position is part of a $5 billion, 10-year restoration plan Obama released during his 2008 presidential campaign. Davis' official title is "senior adviser on the Great Lakes" to Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson.
Congress approved legislation in late October 2009 that included $475 million to restore the Great Lakes by combating invasive species, cleaning up highly polluted sites and expanding wetlands. The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) includes:
This initiative will use outcome-oriented performance goals and measures to target the most significant problems and track progress in addressing them. EPA and its Federal partners will coordinate State, tribal, local, and industry actions to protect, maintain, and restore the chemical, biological, and physical integrity of the Great Lakes. The Initiative builds upon 5 years of work of the Great Lakes Interagency Task Force (IATF) and stakeholders, guided by the Great Lakes Regional Collaboration Strategy. The IATF includes 11 cabinet and agency organizations, including: EPA, the Council on Environmental Quality, and the Departments of State, Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, Homeland Security, Army, and Health and Human Services.
The IATF developed a Plan for the $475 million budget, including over $250 million in grants and project agreements aimed at achieving the long term goals: safely eating the fish and swimming at our beaches, assuring safe drinking water, and providing a healthy ecosystem for fish and wildlife. A companion Agency Actions document describes proposed accomplishments for each Agency pursuant to the Initiative.
The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative website provides additional information on the progress of this initiative, including the award of grants for specific projects.
The FY2010-FY2014 Great Lakes Restoration Action Plan was released on February 21, 2010. This Plan provides information about how the GLRI will address specific high profile, basinwide issues (for example, aquatic invasive species) as well as critical but more localized issues (for example, contaminated sediments). EPA and the IATF will use this plan to guide the overall direction and focus of GLRI and lays out the goals, objectives, measures, and actions that will help track our federal efforts from fiscal year 2010 through 2014.
The report State of the Great Lakes 2010 contains discussions on each of the Great Lakes and the current and planned restoration projects.
The Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition consists of more than 120 environmental, conservation, and outdoor recreation organizations, zoos, aquariums and museums. Their member organizations represent millions of people who share a common goal of restoring and protecting North America’s greatest freshwater resource, the Great Lakes. The coalition reflects a growing public awareness of the urgent need to restore the health of the Great Lakes, which are essential to the economic and cultural identity of our region. The coalition’s mission is to secure a sustainable Great Lakes restoration plan and the funding needed to implement it. The coalition seeks to:
Some progress is being made in restoration of habitat and improvement in water quality. Here are some Wisconsin success stories.
Cladophora Algae information from Great Lakes Water Institute.
Excessive growth of the filamentous green alga, Cladophora sp., was one of the most obvious symptoms of eutrophication in the Great Lakes between the 1950s and 1970s. During the latter part of this period, a large amount of research was conducted to determine the causes of excessive Cladophora growth. While various factors, including nitrogen, phosphorus, temperature and irradiance were found to influence Cladophora growth, phosphorus appeared to be the key factor responsible for excessive growth, and phosphorus abatement was seen as the most effective method of solving the problem. This approach appeared to be validated by the decline in the abundance of Cladophora and other algae in the 1980s following the removal of phosphorus from detergents, improved phosphorus removal by sewage treatment plants, and changes in agricultural practices designed to reduce phosphorus runoff from land – actions that resulted from a 1983 amendment to the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.
In the past five to ten years, excessive Cladophora growth has re-emerged as a management problem in parts of the Great Lakes. This has resulted in public complaint, generally related to the decline in aesthetic conditions near the lakeshore. Other negative impacts include human health hazards (e.g. Cladophora mats may promote the growth or retention of pathogens), the clogging of water intakes (including those of power plants), the loss of recreation opportunities, and declining lakefront property values. In addition to direct impacts on humans, excessive Cladophora growth may have significant impacts on ecosystem functions and properties such as nutrient cycling, energy flow and food web structure. More info.
A June 2006 report Something’s Amuck, Algae Blooms Return to Michigan Shores by the the Michigan Environmental Council has more on this problem and what can be done to solve it.
A presentation by Michael Evanoff of Michigan DNR Bay City State Recreation Area, Muck Management Uncensored examines the history of "muck management" at this location.
An article Green Disposal of a Green Menace was published in the Great Lakes Echo on July 30, 2013. This article discusses options for disposal of Cladophora algae, including composting and possibly using it in the production of biofuels.
Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant and Michigan Sea Grant have produced a brochure The Beach Manager's Manual - Harmful Algal Blooms.
The NOAA Center of Excellence for Great Lakes and Human Health (CEGLHH) is hosting a series of Harmful Algal Bloom (HAB) Stakeholder Workshops in Great Lakes states. The purpose of these workshops is to bring together public health, water, beach/natural resource managers, and tribes to discuss and assess the HAB issue in the state. For additional information on these Workshops, please see: http://www.glerl.noaa.gov/res/Centers/HumanHealth/
In February 2008, the Alliance for the Great Lakes issued a press release criticizing the state's draft 2008 305(b) report of impaired waters for failing to document a dramatic increase in algae blooms in Saginaw Bay and along Western Lake Erie.
In June 2005, Wisconsin DNR issued a warning to swimmers and others who use southern Wisconsin lakes to be alert to the dangers of blue-green algae, which may produce toxins that can sicken or kill people and animals. The algae typically begins to bloom around the start of summer and can be worse in hot and rainy weather. More of the potentially-dangerous algae have been growing in Madison-area lakes because of increasing runoff of soil and fertilizer. Two lakes in Madison were closed to the public in early June 2005.
Blue-green algae blooms were blamed when a dog died after swimming in Lake Kegonsa in summer 2004. The Badger State Games triathlon, scheduled at Lake Kegonsa State Park in June 2004 was cancelled because of algae blooms. A Cottage Grove teenager died after swimming in a golf course pond and ingesting algae in 2003.
Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant and Michigan Sea Grant have produced a brochure The Beach Manager's Manual - Harmful Algal Blooms.
More information on Cyanobacteria
The NOAA Center of Excellence for Great Lakes and Human Health (CEGLHH) has hosted a series of Harmful Algal Bloom (HAB) Stakeholder Workshops in Great Lakes states. The purpose of these workshops is to bring together public health, water, beach/natural resource managers, and tribes to discuss and assess the HAB issue in the state. More info.
There are a number of invasive plant and animal species that inhabit the Great Lakes and disrupt the ecological balance of aquatic life. One such species is the spiny water flea. More info on invasive species is available at http://www.great-lakes.net/envt/flora-fauna/invasive/invasive.html
The primary source of information on recreational water quality in Wisconsin is http://www.wibeaches.us
Also see the very informative beaches section of the WDNR website which groups beach information under the topics Before you go, Beach health, Ecosystems and Recreation, Water quality issues, Monitoring data, and Beach science.
The website of the Water Microbiology Section, Environmental Health Division of the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene has a link to a 12-minute video which provides instructions on how to properly collect beach water samples for E. coli testing.
The City of Racine has a great Water Quality Research Website that provides presentations and published articles for the following:
This is an excellent source to gain information quickly and to find ideas for projects that may relate to your local beach.
Julie Kinzelman, Ph.D.
Racine Health Department / Laboratory
730 Washington Avenue
Racine, WI 53403
PH: (262) 636-9501
FX: (262) 636-9576
A survey of nearly 400 residents of the Milwaukee, Kinnickinnic, and Menomonee River watersheds that was released in January 2011 shows general support for government actions to protect water resources, but mixed views on which level of government should be implementing such actions. The survey, designed and analyzed by the Public Policy Forum and commissioned by 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, also indicates that local environmental groups may have an important role to play in educating the public about water issues. Respondents were asked a series of questions designed to elicit their views and understanding of critical water resource issues. The survey shows residents are split on whether water resource management and quality issues should be governed by regional water governance districts or the state. Municipal governments are not favored for the role. When asked about the effectiveness of specific local government actions, most respondents viewed the actions as at least somewhat effective. The role of individuals in protecting local waterways is seen as less important, in that just four percent of respondents agree they “have a responsibility to future generations to protect the region’s water resources.” Nevertheless, respondents report having taken actions or a willingness to take action to conserve water or protect water quality. These contradictions in attitudes may reflect the fact that few residents spend time recreating on local rivers or lakes, and that many do not know where stormwater runoff goes after it leaves their neighborhoods. Environmental organizations, which are viewed as the most trustworthy sources of information on water issues, have an opportunity to improve residents’ knowledge and understanding of water issues.
Wisconsin DNR's Water Topics website has useful information under the headings Beaches, Nonpoint, and Storm Water Runoff, among others. Also see here.
The Wisconsin Clean Marina Program provides guidance and education that enable marina and boatyard operators to protect the resources that sustain their livelihood — clean water, clean air, and healthy fish and wildlife communities.
Another source of information is WI Natural Resources Magazine.
Also see Waterway Protection
The Alliance for the Great Lakes (formerly Lake Michigan Federation) has a publication A Prescription for Healthy Beaches - Helping You Help Your Beach.
Plastics and other litter, abandoned vessels, and derelict fishing gear have been a long-standing problem for the Great Lakes. In order to begin to address this problem, the Great Lakes community worked together to produce the Great Lakes Land-based Marine Debris Action Plan. The action plan provides scientists, governments, stakeholders, and decision makers a road map for strategic progress to see that the Great Lakes, its coasts, people, and wildlife are free from the impacts of marine debris. It centers around a mission to combat debris through an increased understanding of the problem, preventative actions, reductions in impacts, education and outreach, and collaborative efforts from diverse groups.
An article Surfing and Saving Lake Michigan was written by Ingrid Lindfors, co-founder of the Lake Michigan chapter of Surfrider Foundation.
The International Joint Commission (U.S. and Canada) has a Beaches and Recreational Water Quality Workgroup that has developed a Beaches Fact Sheet and several other documents evaluating sources of recreational water quality contamination and reviewing best management practices.
EPA has compiled several NPS (Nonpoint Source) Outreach Products that are a selection of television, radio, and print products on nonpoint source pollution that have been developed by various agencies and organizations around the country. They are good examples of outreach in the mass media. Also see What You Can Do.
NOAA, in partnership with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, International City/County Management Association and Rhode Island Sea Grant, will be releasing, in August 2009, a first-of-its kind interagency guide that adapts smart growth principles to the unique needs of coastal and waterfront communities. Smart Growth for Coastal and Waterfront Communities builds on existing smart growth principles to offer 10 coastal and waterfront-specific guidelines that help manage development while balancing environmental, economic, and quality of life issues.
USGS' Great Lakes Beach Science website has a nationwide database that contains greater than 1200 citations for publications directly and indirectly pertaining to recreational water quality intended for access by the general public and scientific community. It is a fully searchable, downloadable bibliography that has been categorized into major study topics.
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