All summer long, the Milwaukee Health Department is partnering with UWM's School of Public Health to test if it's safe to swim at Bradford, McKinley and South Shore beaches.
Katie Lenz and Nusrat Shaik are on duty on an early Thursday morning at South Shore. The interns are quick to report “no two days are the same.”
They should know; teams of two are out sampling and probing Milwaukee's three beaches six days a week.
Katie Lenz pulls on heavy waders and steps out in the lake to knee depth. She carries a quart-size plastic jug, and rinses it three times, before drawing a sample. She dumps it into a larger, empty jug.
Lenz repeats the steps halfway down the beach and once more at its other end.
In the meantime Nusrat Shaik takes stock of the beach environment. That includes counting the numerous birds.
“We have 150 ducks and about 75 seagulls,” Shaik says.
Shake taps her findings into the iPad she carries. She says the life on the beach can contribute to its water quality. Shaik also notes how the water looks.
“I check for turbidity. Today the water looks clear. I also note the weather conditions. Today is sunny. I keep track of the number of people on the beach,” Shaik adds.
She also checks for dead fish, garbage along the shore and 'floatables' in the water.
“We also check for odor. Sometimes we smell algae, dead fish, occasionally sewage. We note those odors,” Shaik says.
Normally, Shake and Lenz do some basic water quality tests on-site. Unfortunately, their two digital meters missed the beach visit; they were in need of repair. Still, there will be plenty of testing back indoors.
The interns, nine in all, work side by side with scientists – three days a week in the City of Milwaukee Health Department’s lab – the other two at UWM. It’s part of a collaboration the city and the Zilber School of Public Health struck three years ago.
Katie Lenz says the experience has stoked both her interest in freshwater research, and a growing sense of responsibility.
“I’ve learned that there a lot of things you have to take a lot of things that you have to take into consideration when you’re informing the public about the water quality - because you want to give correct information but you also don’t want to worry the public if you don’t need to,” Lenz says.
Paul Biedrzycki can’t help but put the challenge of publishing the most up-to-date beach water quality information possible in historical context. The director of disease control and environmental health has worked at the city’s health department for decades.
“I’ve been here 32 years and we used to do beach sampling from a boat about 200 yards away,” Biedrzycki says.
He credits the partnership as a breakthrough in the monitoring program. He says the UWM lab is developing models to help predict water quality. Biedrzycki says the “on the scene” information and water samples interns deliver back from beaches feeds the effort.
“And in some ways have helped us improve the predictive model, which is sort of the gold standard; the idea that we can measure physical or chemical parameters very quickly to predict microbial contamination that may, again, pose a risk to the public,” Biedrzycki says.
The EPA is proposing tightening standards that trigger warning or beach closures.
Biedrzycki says only "it has created some controversy." He's funneling his energies into local monitoring momentum. Just a few years ago, beach monitoring happened two to three times a week. In 2012 it ratcheted up to five; and one year later, to six days a week.
Biedrzycki says the program is nurturing a new generation of scientists.
“It’s been a real win-win in terms leadership development around public health; a next generation energized to help us solve some of the pressing environmental issues in the coming decades,” Biedrzycki says.
The public can view the latest beach conditions all summer on the Milwaukee Health Department website.