Graham Kilmer
MKE County

Supervisors Want Action On McKinley Beach

After recent drowning, they back $500,000 plan to reconstruct beach, improve safety.

By - May 25th, 2022 10:51 am
Photo by Jeramey Jannene taken August 7th, 2011 all rights reserved.

Photo by Jeramey Jannene taken August 7th, 2011.

The Milwaukee County Board is moving with urgency to fix the dangerous swim conditions at McKinley Beach.

The beach, which is currently closed to the public, has been a concern for the county since the summer of 2020 when there were three fatal drownings. In 2021, the board funded a study of the water conditions that could potentially offer solutions for managing the deadly riptides.

On Monday, May 23, one day before the final report from that study was to be presented to the board, a 16-year-old girl drowned near McKinley Marina and was pulled out of the water by the Milwaukee Fire Department.

At the meeting of the Parks Energy and Environment Committee Tuesday, the committee chair, Sup. Sheldon Wasserman said “We have a tremendous need coming up for this beach to be open. These fences are not an answer for the summer.”

Wasserman was referencing the fencing the parks department put up around the perimeter of the beach. “Those fences are fake… for the majority of the citizens of Milwaukee.”

Wasserman announced that he would be sponsoring legislation to fund the redevelopment of McKinley Beach as soon as possible. “I would like to be able to get this thing done this summer,” he said.

The preferred option for addressing the dangerous water conditions identified in the report is to restore the beach to its intended design, with its original depths and conditions. This would be achieved by adding sand to the beach and swim area until the water depth between the two breakwaters and the beach is approximately two and a half feet.

“We didn’t want to do anything that was going to change the water quality in a negative way, that was going to put an unachievable maintenance burden on the county, or that would not be cost efficient,” said Heather Stabo, a senior engineer with SEH and one of the engineering consultants that produced the study.

Sarah Toomsen, parks manager for planning and development, told the committee that initial cost estimates put this project at approximately $500,000. Wasserman said the county should tap contingency funds or its allocation from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to pay for, and begin work on the project as soon as possible.

McKinley Beach was built in 1989 as a pocket beach with two breakwaters on the northern and southern ends creating a shoreline in the shape of a crescent moon. The sandy beach began to develop after Government Pier was constructed in the 1930’s causing lake currents to deposit sand along the edge of the pier. The breakwaters and the headlands created by the development of the beach also serve to protect Lincoln Memorial Drive from the lake.

The dangerous rip currents that develop at the beach are called structural rip currents, because they are caused by the large column of water, and therefore energy, rushing between the narrow channel of the breakwater when conditions are ripe.

In 2020, one of these conditions was the historically high lake levels. According to historic lake level data in the safety study, during the last 40 years, nine of the 10 months with the highest average lake level were in 2020 or 1986.

In 2020, the water between the breakwaters was at an average depth of approximately 6.2 feet, Stabo told the committee.

Rebuilding the beach to its originally intended grade and depths would produce a “slight reduction in lakeward rip currents” when lake levels are at historic highs and an “appreciable reduction” when lake levels are at slightly above the historic average, where they are now, according to the safety study.

Parks Committee members Wasserman,  Steven Shea, Steve Taylor and Sup. Ryan Clancy, who also attended the meetingseemed united on the issue, with Wasserman and Taylor saying they would sponsor a resolution to allocate the money for construction as soon as possible. Toomsen told them a design process would still need to be undertaken and that construction was probably a few months out.

Wasserman told parks that he would like to see a buoy rope stretched between the two breakwaters to grab onto as a last chance at safety in case swimmers ignore the beach closure and are pulled out by a riptide.

Read the full McKinley Beach Safety Study here.

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