Graham Kilmer
MKE County

Parks to Study McKinley Beach Safety

After three drownings in 2020, county is looking to re-engineer the beach.

By - Jan 26th, 2021 02:40 pm

McKinley Beach, 2020 top. 2010 Bottom. Photos by Milwaukee County.

After three people drowned at McKinley Beach in 2020, Milwaukee County officials are working on an emergency study of the water and beach conditions to improve safety for swimmers.

“Obviously McKinley Beach has been on the forefront of our minds since summer,” Sarah Toomsen, planning and development manager for Milwaukee County Parks, said at a meeting of the County Board’s Parks, Energy and Environment Committee.

There were also several near drownings at the beach in summer 2020. Following the third drowning, parks closed the beach. A report from the Parks Department states that at the time of the closure there were riptide conditions occurring at the beach.

John Nelson, parks safety and security training manager, said park rangers had to confront more than 800 citizens swimming in the water after the beach was closed.

McKinley Beach was built in 1989, and over the past three decades it has experienced fluctuating lake levels, as is common along Great Lakes shorelines. Recently, Lake Michigan has been at historically high levels.

“Much has changed at the beach, and it is appropriate to be concerned and study it,” Toomsen said.

Aerial photos of the beach show significant erosion of the beach that has changed the shaped of the swimming area, which is capped at both ends with stone breakwaters.

Toomsen said she thinks the beach was designed for the conditions present in 1989. Rising lake levels and beach erosion are “really changing the swimming conditions,” she said. When the beach was first designed, it was intended not just as a recreation area, but also as a buffer between the lake and Lincoln Memorial drive.

In the 2021 budget, $10,000 was earmarked for a safety study at the beach. Now, the parks department says it will need $80,000 to study the conditions at McKinley Beach.

Parks would use the funding to pay engineers for a wave analysis and study of the lakebed and the design of possible solutions.

Sup. Sheldon Wasserman, parks committee chair, said the board would ask for $80,000 in “emergency” funding from a contingency account, likely during the next board cycle in February.

“This is exactly racial equity, this is exactly the racial lens,” he said, “when three African-Americans die at this beach last summer.”

Categories: MKE County, Parks, Weekly

2 thoughts on “MKE County: Parks to Study McKinley Beach Safety”

  1. just1paul says:

    Oh come on! Swimmer safety will only be enhanced when people learn to how to swim and respect the water.

  2. mkwagner says:

    just1paul, you speak out of ignorance. While we call it Lake Michigan, what laps at our eastern shore is an inland sea. Seas have tides including rip tides just like oceans. Rip tides are the cause of hundreds of thousands of drowning worldwide every year. My brother-in-law drowned in Lake Michigan in 1999. He was an exceptionally strong swimmer, having been a lifeguard at a Pacific coast beach in his youth. Rip tides kill strong and weak swimmers alike. Rip tide warning signs are found along coastal beaches on both Atlantic and Pacific oceans. There are no such warnings on Lake Michigan despite the number of drowning attributed to rip tides. As a community, we do not respect the mighty sea at our eastern shores. We need to start talking about rip tides; educate people on their deadly power. Maybe, there needs to be a lifeguard stationed at McKinley Beach and equipment to help rescue swimmers caught in a rip tide.
    In 1989 Milwaukee County fashioned a swimming beach at McKinley without taking into consideration the power and danger Michigan poses. Maybe the 2021 redesign will include greater safety measures to prevent rip tide drownings.

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