Could Technology Turn the Dangerous Tide at McKinley Beach?

While the beach remains closed for this summer, county officials ponder whether a proposed warning system could lead to a safer future.

Two key Milwaukee County officials say they will ask the Parks Department to look into potentially life-saving technology for McKinley Beach, where suddenly shifting currents were linked to four deaths last year.

But no possible improvements will come fast enough to salvage the current swimming season. Barriers will block off McKinley this summer, while an unrelated lifeguard shortage means swimmers will enter the water at their own risk at all other county beaches, a parks spokesman says.

McKinley was Wisconsin’s deadliest Lake Michigan beach in 2020, with four drownings attributed to rip currents, the abrupt strong shifts that can pull unsuspecting swimmers out to sea. Yet just 28 miles north, two Port Washington beaches boast the nation’s most advanced system to warn of rip currents. The inventor of Port Washington’s system, University of Wisconsin-Madison engineering professor Chin Wu, originally wanted the same technology to protect McKinley and neighboring Bradford Beach. He still does, and he says he’s developed an upgraded version for the Milwaukee beaches.

“I’m making my services available,” Wu says. “I feel so bad about those four people.”

Wu says he’s just waiting for Milwaukee County officials to ask for his help. Parks Department spokesman Ian Everett has previously said that staffers tried to contact Wu after McKinley was first closed last August, but Wu says he hasn’t heard from them. He says he still hasn’t been contacted, even though the County Board has appropriated $80,000 to study how to improve safety at the beach.

Now County Executive David Crowley and Supervisor Sheldon Wasserman, chairman of the board’s parks committee, say they will talk to parks officials about considering Wu’s system.

 

 

“If there’s a technology that’s going to help make our beaches safer,” the county should explore it, Crowley says.

At Port Washington’s North and South Beaches, Wu’s INFOS system combines data from webcams, wave sensors, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Weather Service in a website that warns when rip currents are likely. A 2020 upgrade added kiosks to each beach, equipped with screens that display the websites and traffic-style lights that show the rip current risk.

For McKinley and Bradford, Wu wants to install similar equipment on shore, plus a pair of buoys, one for each beach, located about 200 feet offshore. With the aid of sensors mounted on those buoys, the system would be able to precisely predict rip currents up to 12 hours in advance, he says.

That kind of technology wasn’t discussed when parks officials asked supervisors for more money to study safety at McKinley. Instead, they raised the possibility that the beach might have to be entirely redesigned.

McKinley was rebuilt in the late 1980s with a “pocket beach” design, featuring huge rocks at each end that could be contributing to rip currents, say Wu and Hector Bravo, UW-Milwaukee professor emeritus of engineering.

The original impetus for rebuilding McKinley was rising lake levels that sent storm-tossed waves  crashing onto Lincoln Memorial Drive. Those lake levels had receded by the time the work was completed. In January of this year, parks planning and development manager Sarah Toomsen cited the high 2020 lake level in briefing Wasserman’s panel about the rip current danger. 

Rip currents actually are more likely to form when lake levels are low — and low levels draw more people to the water, increasing drownings, Wu says. And the lake level has receded again this year. 

More recent attention has focused on the lack of lifeguards. McKinley hasn’t had any lifeguards for years. That’s because it doesn’t have a building like Bradford’s beach house, where lifeguards can store their gear and change into and out of their swimsuits, says Wasserman, whose district includes both beaches. 

But now the whole county faces a lifeguard shortage, partly because many of its guards found other jobs after they were idled last year by the COVID-19 pandemic. The few dozen lifeguards who remain can staff some county swimming pools, but none of them has the open-water experience needed to work at beaches, parks officials say.  

Wasserman says he and other supervisors are working on a plan to significantly raise pay to attract more lifeguards. Crowley says he will sign that measure if it reaches his desk, using funding from President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan to cover the cost.

Lifeguard pay was also raised last year, but even a second boost probably won’t help restore beach coverage this summer, Everett says. Once they’re hired, lifeguards need several weeks of training to staff a pool and then additional training to work in open water, he says. However, the pay hike will help ensure beaches and pools can be staffed next summer, Everett says.

Racial disparity is yet another factor in the McKinley drownings. At least three of last year’s four victims were people of color, which Wasserman says is in line with national data that shows Black and Hispanic youth receive less swimming instruction and drown more frequently than white swimmers. At the same time, he notes, people of color consider McKinley more welcoming than Bradford – relegating them to the more dangerous beach.

Crowley says he agrees with Wasserman that more swimming lessons are needed at local pools, targeted to those who “don’t have opportunities to learn” now. The county’s first Black executive also says, “We have to move away from unwritten rules” and create “a welcoming and inclusive environment” at both Bradford and McKinley.

However, the county’s gloomy fiscal outlook hangs over many of these potential solutions – paying higher lifeguard wages after the one-time federal funding runs out, providing more swimming lessons, even finding money for the temporary barriers at McKinley – say Crawford, Wasserman and Everett. 

Stagnant state shared revenue and heavy dependence on property taxes have led local officials to lobby the state for authority to let voters raise county sales taxes and establish new sales taxes in Wisconsin’s largest cities. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers backs the idea, but Republicans who control the state Legislature have already cut the plan out of his 2021-’23 budget.

“I’m worried about how we’re going to save lives with our current budget limitations,” Wasserman says.

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Larry Sandler has been writing about Milwaukee-area news for more than 30 years. He covered City Hall and transportation for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, after reporting on county government, business and education for the former Milwaukee Sentinel. At the Journal Sentinel, he won a Milwaukee Press Club award for his investigation of airline security. He's been freelancing since late 2012, with a focus on local government, politics and transportation. His contributions to Milwaukee Magazine have included profiles of U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson and Milwaukee Ald. Bob Donovan, as well as a feature about the perennial power struggles of Milwaukee County officials. Larry grew up in Chicago and now lives in Glendale.