Graham Kilmer
MKE County

Committee Approves McKinley Beach Restoration

$712,000 would fund effort to fix dangerous swim conditions. Beach could re-open by 2024.

By - Jun 16th, 2022 12:30 pm
McKinley Beach. Photo taken Aug. 7th, 2011 by Jeramey Jannene.

McKinley Beach. Photo taken Aug. 7th, 2011 by Jeramey Jannene.

The Milwaukee County Board will consider a funding proposal to fix the dangerous swimming conditions at McKinley Beach. If it passes, according to the resolution’s author, the beach could reopen for swimming, with a higher degree of safety, by 2024.

In 2020, there were three drownings at McKinley Beach, likely due to a combination of the beach’s design and record high water levels not seen since the 1980’s. The county responded by commissioning a study of the water conditions.

The beach was built in 1989 as a pocket beach with breakwaters jutting out from its northern and southern ends. The breakwaters and headlands protect the beach and N. Lincoln Memorial dr. from the lake.

The final results of that study, as well as a handful of options for improving the safety and swimming conditions of the beach, returned to the Milwaukee County Board in May. The cheapest option that had the best outcomes looked to involve restoring the beach to its original depth and water conditions by adding sand to the swim area until the depth between the breakwaters and the beach is two and a half feet.

The county board’s Finance Committee approved the spending proposal sponsored by Sup. Sheldon Wasserman Thursday. If passed by the full board, it would use $712,190 from the county’s contingency account, typically reserved for emergency or unanticipated spending needs, to rebuild McKinley Beach.

“Thank you very much for making a lifesaving decision today,” Wasserman said.

The drownings and dangerous swimming conditions at the beach are caused by rip currents that develop when a large column of water is forced between the narrow channel of the breakwaters, according to the study. This is called a structural rip current, and it is exacerbated by high water levels. In 2020, the water level between the breakwaters had an average depth of 6.2 feet, one of the engineers that worked on the study, Heather Stabo, told supervisors.

One day before supervisors saw the final report on the water conditions, a 16-year-old girl drowned near the McKinley Marina, amplifying the urgency supervisors felt to address conditions at the beach.

“The conditions present at McKinley beach underscored by the most recent tragic drowning emphasizes the critical nature of this project and demands immediate action” the funding resolution reads.

The resolution states that initial estimates for a project timeline would see planning for the beach restoration completed by the beginning of 2023, and the project would be finished sometime between the end of summer and the beginning of fall 2023. 

If the board doesn’t tap the contingency fund for the project now, the resolution states, the project would not be completed until the end of 2024, resulting in closure of the beach until summer 2025.

While the beach has been closed off with fencing since 2021, beachgoers have still used McKinley Beach. Citing this, supervisors expressed in May that they wanted the beach reopened with safer conditions as soon as possible, given that closure did not prevent swimming at the beach.

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