High bacteria levels detected more often along Belgium shoreline than in other parts of state, but officials question study that also ranked Wisconsin second worst in nation
A recently released report that shows Wisconsin has the second worst water quality in the nation along its Lake Michigan and Lake
Superior beaches suggests the Ozaukee County shoreline is a significant part of the problem.
According to the June 26 report issued by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), 26% of the Lake Michigan water samples
taken along beaches in Ozaukee County exceeded maximum federal health standards for bacteria in 2012, second only to beaches in
Douglas County, which includes the commercial port of Superior on the far southwest tip of Lake Superior.
The bacteria levels along Ozaukee County beaches were slightly worse than at beaches in Milwaukee County, which was followed by
Kenosha and Sheboygan.
The culprits, according to the report, are beaches at the ends of Cedar Beach Road and Highway D in the Town of Belgium, which
each exceeded health standards in 37% of the samples taken. Only a beach in Douglas County and Milwaukee’s Bender and South
Shore beaches had a higher percentage of water samples with bacteria levels that exceeded health standards.
Testing data also shows high levels of bacteria in water along Harrington Beach State Park’s south and north beaches, where levels
exceeded standards in 31% and 32% of the samples.
But beaches in central and southern Ozaukee County fared much better. At Port Washington’s north beach, referred to as Upper Lake
Park Beach for testing purposes, only 18% of the samples exceeded bacteria standards, followed by Lion’s Den Gorge Nature Preserve
beach in the Town of Grafton at 13% and Concordia University Wisconsin’s beach at 7%.
The NRDC report compared 2012 local water test data from counties throughout Wisconsin and the nation that measure bacteria,
namely E. coli, which is a common indicator of fecal contamination.
The Environmental Protection Agency sets water quality health standards and requires local officials to post advisory signs at beaches.
Some local and state officials, however, take issue with the NRDC report, questioning the comparison between counties that test water
with differing frequency.
Ozaukee County Public Health Director Kirsten Johnson noted her department tests water along most local beaches four times a
week, as much as any county in Wisconsin and more than many.
“We’re not comparing apples to apples,” she said.
Milwaukee County tests water at its notoriously polluted South Shore Beach and its popular Bradford Beach three times a week, and
less often at other beaches.
Sheboygan County tests water at four beaches in Kohler Andrae State Park four times a week, and less often or not at all at other
Donalea Dinsmore, Great Lakes Beach Program Coordinator for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, echoed Johnson’s
concerns, noting that water testing programs in Wisconsin differ from those elsewhere in the country.
“It’s really difficult to do a nationwide comparison because of the differences in fresh and saltwater, monitoring frequency and other
challenges,” she said.
While the comparison has been challenged, the raw data indicates a trend that has caught the attention of local health officials.
“Upper Lake Park beach (in Port) has improved in terms of water quality over the past couple of years, but I would say it’s the opposite
at Harrington Beach,” Johnson said.
Bacteria warnings or beach closings were posted 32 times at Harrington Beach south and 23 times at Harrington Beach north last year.
Primary sources of water pollution are nonpoint runoff, sanitary sewer outflow and wildlife. While sanitary sewer outflow may be more
of a factor in urban areas like Milwaukee County, experts say nonpoint runoff that carries animal waste from farm fields into the lake is
probably a significant cause of the bacteria along beaches in northern Ozaukee County.
Dan Ziegler, an environmental health specialist with the Ozaukee County Public Health Department, said there are three areas in
Harrington Beach State Park where stormwater flows into Lake Michigan.
“Stormwater is known to carry quite a bit of bacteria,” he said. “You don’t have the same direct discharge at Upper Lake Park Beach as
you have at Harrington.”
At Upper Lake Park Beach, or Port Washington’s north beach, advisories or closings were posted only 12 times last year.
In addition to less nonpoint pollution than in the northern end of the county, Port’s north beach undoubtedly benefits from the city’s
effective wastewater treatment system.
According to Wastewater Supt. Dan Buehler, the city has had to divert untreated sewage into the lake only twice in the last 17 years.
The most recent event was in the winter of 2012 when wet snow knocked out the plant’s primary and backup power systems for about
four hours, resulting in 150,000 to 200,000 gallons of sewage being diverted into the lake.
The only other time that has happened in recent history was during the flood of 1996, Buehler said.
Johnson also credited Port Washington’s Parks and Recreation Department, which regularly grooms both the north and south beaches
with machinery to remove debris.
“We now do it five times a week, so that helps a little bit,” Parks and Recreation Director Charlie Imig said. “We try to keep it nice for
everyone, and if the end result is better usage and water quality, then that’s awesome.”
Although local officials question whether bacteria levels along beaches in Ozaukee County are that much higher than along beaches
elsewhere, they are keenly aware of Lake Michigan pollution and are fighting it with water quality monitoring and programs designed to
stem nonpoint pollution.
Ozaukee County, which has been among the leaders in water quality monitoring, is one of several counties to use the Nowcast testing
model. This predictive model eliminates much of the delay between water sample collection and analysis and allows warnings to be
posted quicker than in the past. It also reduces testing costs.
Johnson said eventually most water quality analysis in the county will be done using this model, although the results will be confirmed
with conventional tests done once or twice a week.
From a pollution prevention standpoint, the county continuously works with rural landowners, primarily farmers, on ways to reduce
nonpoint pollution, said Jeff Bell, an Ozaukee County land and water conservationist.
He noted the county received more than $100,000 in state and federal grants last year for pollution reduction projects.
“We get contacted by landowners — a lot but not all are farmers — mostly for agriculture waste projects,” Bell said. “We can do storage
facilities, grass waterways, rock-lined waterways and wetland restorations.”
Although funded in part by grants, Bell said, many of the projects require long-term investments from landowners.
“We’ve never had a problem with getting people to sign up for the money. The problem is trying to target it and getting the best bang for
our buck,” Bell said. “We want to reduce phosphorous, so we focus on agriculture waste and crop land.”
To better target sources of water pollution in the Harrington Beach State Park area, the county Public Health Department will conduct
a water survey funded by a nearly $12,000 grant from the Wisconsin Coastal Management Program through the National Oceanic and
Johnson said the survey will either take place late this summer or at the beginning of next year.
A listing of Ozaukee County beaches and water quality advisories can be found at www.wibeaches.us. The county Public Health
Department also lists water conditions on its Twitter page @OzaukeeBeach.
Ozaukee Press reporter Sarah McCraw contributed to this story.
Image Information: PORT WASHINGTON’S north beach, which was a popular place last weekend, has low levels of bacteria in the water near shore compared to beaches in the Town of Belgium, which were ranked in a national report to be among the worst in the state in terms of number of water samples that exceeded federal health standards. Below, a green sign at the entrance to the north beach on Tuesday meant bacteria levels were low. Photo by Sam Arendt