Wisconsin’s Beach Closings Increase, Wisconsin Environment Calls for Better Protections

Media Contacts
Megan Severson

Wisconsin Environment

MILWAUKEE – As Wisconsinites flock to the beach, pollution from stormwater runoff and sewage overflows continue to plague Wisconsin’s beaches. Wisconsin Environment reported that beach closings and advisories due to pollution went up last year in Wisconsin totaling 735 days of closed beaches, according to Natural Resources Defense Council’s (NRDC) 21st annual beachwater quality report released today.

“Our beaches are a pride of Wisconsin and places that people across the region come to visit during the summer,” said Megan Severson, Wisconsin Environment advocate. “But every year we see our beaches closed due to excess pollution. It is time that we take the common sense steps to keep our beaches clean.”

In its 21st year, NRDC’s annual report – Testing the Waters: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches – analyzes government data on beachwater testing results from 2010 at more than 3,000 beach testing locations nationwide. The report confirms that last year, our beachwater continued to suffer from serious contamination – including oil and human and animal waste – and a concerted effort to control future pollution is required. The report tallied 735 beach closing and health advisory days in 2010 in Wisconsin, an 83 percent jump from the year before.

The report also provides a 5-star rating guide to 200 of the nation’s most popular beaches, evaluating them for water quality and best practices for testing and public notification. For the first time, NRDC is awarding top performers “Superstar” status. NRDC also highlights the top 10 “Repeat Offender” beaches with consistently poor water quality year after year. Testing the Waters this year also includes a special section dedicated to oil-related beach closures, advisories, and notices in the Gulf of Mexico region since the BP oil spill last year. In Wisconsin, North Beach in Racine and Baileys Harbor Ridges Park Beach in Door County received a four star rating. Eichelman Beach in Kenosha County and South Shore Beach in Milwaukee were ranked as “Repeat Offenders” for having persistent contamination problems.

“Wisconsin’s beaches have long suffered from pollution – the difference is now we know what to do about it,” said NRDC senior attorney Jon Devine. “By making our communities literally greener on land, we can make the water at the beach cleaner. In the years to come, there’s no reason we can’t reverse this dirty legacy.”


Closing and advisory days at America’s beaches spiked to the second-highest level in the 21 years since NRDC began compiling this report at 24,091 days, a 29 percent increase from the previous year. The increase is largely because of heavy rainfall in Hawaii, contamination from unidentified sources in California, and oil washing up in the Gulf of Mexico from the BP disaster.

In Wisconsin, most closing and advisory days were the result of polluted urban and suburban runoff.

The large majority of closing and advisory days nationwide – 70 percent – were issued because testing revealed indicator bacteria levels in the water that exceeded health standards, indicating the presence of human or animal waste. Stormwater runoff was the primary source of known pollution nationwide, consistent with past years, indicating the problem has not been sufficiently addressed at the national level. Sewage overflows were also a contributor.

This year’s report found that water quality at America’s beaches remained largely steady, with 8 percent of beachwater samples nationwide exceeding public health standards in 2010, compared to 7 percent for the previous four years. In Wisconsin, the percentage of health standard exceedances increased to 11 percent in 2010 from 8 percent the previous year.

Wisconsin ranked 25th in the nation for the number of samples exceeding national standards in 2010. Individual states with the highest rates of reported contamination in 2010 were Louisiana (37 percent exceeding health standards), Ohio (21 percent), and Indiana (16 percent). Those with the lowest rates of contamination last year were New Hampshire (1 percent), New Jersey (2 percent), Oregon (3 percent), Hawaii (3 percent) and Delaware (3 percent). The region with the most frequently contaminated beachwater in 2010 was the Great Lakes, where 15 percent of beachwater samples exceeded public health standards. The Southeast, New York-New Jersey coast and Delmarva region proved the cleanest at 4 percent, 5 percent and 6 percent respectively.

Under the federal BEACH Act, states regularly test their beachwater for bacteria found in human and animal waste. These bacteria indicate the presence of pathogens. When beach managers determine that water contamination exceeds health standards – or in some cases when a state suspects levels would exceed standards, such as after heavy rain – they notify the public through beach closures or advisories.

Beachwater pollution nationwide causes a range of waterborne illnesses in swimmers including stomach flu, skin rashes, pinkeye, ear, nose and throat problems, dysentery, hepatitis, respiratory ailments, neurological disorders and other serious health problems. For senior citizens, small children and people with weak immune systems, the results can be fatal. The incidence of infections has been steadily growing over the past several decades, and with coastal populations growing it is reasonable to expect this upward trend to continue until the pollution sources are addressed.


Over the last five years of this report, sections of 10 U.S. beaches have stood out as having persistent contamination problems, with water samples exceeding health standards more than 25 percent of the time for each year from 2006 to 2010:

• California: Avalon Beach in Los Angeles County (3 of 5 monitored sections):o Avalon Beach – Near Busy B Café
o Avalon Beach – North of GP Piero Avalon Beach – South of GP Pier
• California: Cabrillo Beach Station in Los Angeles County
• California: Doheny State Beach in Orange County (2 of 6 monitored sections):
o Doheny State Beach – North of San Juan Creek
o Doheny State Beach – Surf Zone at Outfall
• Florida: Keaton Beach in Taylor County
• Illinois: North Point Marina North Beach in Lake County
• New Jersey: Beachwood Beach West in Ocean County
• Ohio: Villa Angela State Park in Cuyahoga County
• Texas: Ropes Park in Nueces County
• Wisconsin: Eichelman Beach in Kenosha County
• Wisconsin: South Shore Beach in Milwaukee

It is important to note that, due to their size, some of these beaches have multiple sections that are tested for water quality, and, in some instances, only certain sections of a beach qualified for the repeat offender list. Where possible, multi-segment beaches have been indicated on this list, along with the specific sections of those beaches identified as repeat offenders.


More than a year later, the impacts of the BP oil disaster – the worst in U.S. history – still linger in the Gulf of Mexico. Over the course of two months, approximately 170 million gallons of oil gushed into Gulf waters, washing up on approximately 1,000 miles of shoreline. As of the end of January, 83 miles of shoreline remained heavily or moderately oiled, while tar balls and weathered oil continue to wash ashore. As a result, many beaches in the region have issued oil spill advisories, closures, and notices since the disaster began more than a year ago. A state-by-state look at oil spill notices, advisories, and closures at Gulf Coast beaches from the beginning of the spill through June 15, 2011 can be found online here: http://www.nrdc.org/water/oceans/ttw/gulf.pdf.

The oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico has caused tremendous damage not only to the environment and communities of the region, but also their economies. This includes the lucrative ocean tourism and recreation industries in Gulf states, which generated a combined $15.4 billion in 2004 alone. In order to help ensure a disaster like this never happens again, Congress should implement the recommendations of President Obama’s National Commission on the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling and help move the nation to cleaner sources of energy that can’t spill or run out.


EPA estimates that more than 10 trillion gallons of untreated stormwater make their way into our surface waters each year, and there are 850 billion gallons of wastewater, which includes sewage and stormwater, released in combined sewer overflows annually.

The best way to protect swimmers from beachwater pollution is to prevent it, according to Wisconsin Environment. A key solution is investing in smarter, greener infrastructure on land – like porous pavement, green roofs, parks, roadside plantings and rain barrels – that makes a real difference in the water. Green infrastructure stops rain where it falls, storing it or letting it filter back into the ground naturally. This keeps it from running off dirty streets and carrying pollution to the beach. And it keeps it from overloading sewage systems and triggering overflows.

These smarter water practices on land not only prevent pollution at the beach – they beautify neighborhoods, cool and cleanse the air, reduce asthma and heat-related illnesses, save on heating and cooling energy costs, boost economies and support American jobs at the same time. Cities nationwide are already starting to embrace these practices at the local level. Now, our federal government has significant opportunities to increase its prevalence on the national level.

“The EPA has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to expand the use of green infrastructure in communities nationwide. Right now they are in the process of updating their national rules for tackling runoff pollution,” said Severson. “We urge the EPA to protect Wisconsin’s beaches by creating strong stormwater regulations to reduce runoff from new and existing developments, and apply runoff standards to all communities.”


Wisconsin Environment is a statewide, citizen-based environmental advocacy organization working for clean air, clean water and open spaces.

For the full report, go to www.wisconsinenvironment.org.

*Broadcast-quality footage of solutions for cleaner beachwater available to download here: http://vimeo.com/album/262783.*