Can Green Infrastructure Alone Transform Bay View's South Shore Into A Swimmable Beach?

Sep 4, 2017

South Shore Beach in Bay View is nestled just south of a yacht club and its parking lot. That's part of the problem. For years stormwater has flowed off its surface directly into the lake.

Then there are the birds. They love to hang out at the beach. Their poop contributes to the beach's challenge with E coli bacteria.

Jen Schwabe and Ray report for duty at South Shore Beach.
Credit Susan Bence / Milwaukee Public Radio

Jen Schwabe and Border Collie Ray were hired to help tackle that problem. The dog is specially trained to “shoo” them away.

“Canada geese are a big big problem. Even though we’re paid to cover just the beach and work just seagull, when we see something else like the 180 geese that were on the beach this morning, we move them as well,” Schwabe says.

View from the east of native plants and grasses taking root in the dune Carrie Bristoll-Groll's team created.
Credit Susan Bence / Milwaukee Public Radio

As part of the recently-completed green infrastructure project, civil engineer Carrie Bristoll-Groll and her team took on the space between the beach and the parking lot. They created a faux sand dune to try to throw incoming birds off their path to the beach. The system also hinders stormwater from flowing into the lake.

“With some tall dune grasses and that helps to distract the birds from flying through there, but within that we also did an infiltration cell so the water right close to the launch would drain over into the infiltration cell, filter through down into ground water before reaching the lake,” Bristoll-Groll says.

One of the new bioswales at South Shore parking lot.
Credit Susan Bence / Milwaukee Public Radio

Bristoll-Groll says the lion’s share of stormwater control happens in eight large bioswales. “Like depressed rain gardens where when it rains water falls into there,” Bristoll-Groll explains.

She’s particularly proud of special wood chips that line each bioswale. They’re infused with a special fungus that eats bacteria.

“Water filters through where the wood chips are, extra fungi to eat up that bacteria. So for an additional $3,000 to this pretty expensive project – high $2 millions – we were able to potentially bring that bacteria removal from 60 percent in a normal bioswale like this up to 90 percent,” Bristoll-Groll says.

UWM School of Freshwater Sciences researcher Sandra McLellan has been studying South Shore's water quality for well over a decade.  She believes the green infrastructure will reduce the number of beach closure’s at South Shore.  “A good number of sources (of contamination) have been removed,” she adds, “But we still have concerns.”

Poor water circulation, McLellan says, is South Shore beach’s underlying issue. She points to the breakwater in the distance that runs parallel to the yacht club and beach. McLellan says the wall impedes the lake’s natural ebb and flow.

Credit Susan Bence / Milwaukee Public Radio

“Any pollution that gets in the water, stays near the shoreline. Whereas if you go a little further down you have a break in the breakwall and water’s coming up from the south and circulating through that area. So we’ve deployed current meters and have watched it…and side by side have taken water quality tests.” McLellan concludes, “We have 15 years of data and we see water quality is 40 times better to the south.”

McLellan thinks picking up and moving the beach 150 meters south where there’s a break in the wall is the logical next step.

Marina Dimitrijevic lives a block from South Shore Park and is a county supervisor. She says she's euphoric about the improvement and is eager to learn if the sand dune and bioswales are paying off.

“We’re going to go with the parking lot and do some further testing,” Dimitrijevic says.

She says Milwaukee County needs time to gather data, and describes the option of moving the beach south plan B, not plan A.

Dimitrijevic says she's committed to fixing the situation as soon as possible. “I think a safe estimate would maybe hopefully be around two years from now, but hey we’ve come this far. Who would think we would be two years away from a swimmable beach?" She adds, “That’s just my personal prediction, I’m going to do everything I can to make that happen.”

I talked with Supervisor Dimitrijevic on Friday, on the cusp of Labor Day weekend. South Shore beach was open to swimmers, but an elevated bacteria warning was in effect.

Credit Susan Bence / Milwaukee Public Radio