Two years after treacherous rip currents swept four swimmers to their deaths, Milwaukee’s McKinley Beach is still closed and still dangerous. And it’s going to stay that way for another year, even as county officials move forward on a potential solution.
Spurred by the 2020 fatalities and a fifth drowning in May of this year, the County Board voted unanimously June 23 to appropriate $712,190 in emergency funds to rebuild the beach with permanent safety improvements. County Executive David Crowley says he plans to sign the resolution.
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“If we really want to save lives, we have to make this investment,” Crowley said in an interview.
That action bypasses the regular county budget process to speed up reconstruction by more than a year, says Supervisor Sheldon Wasserman, the measure’s sponsor. Parks officials now expect to reopen the beach sometime during the summer of 2023, rather than in early 2025, says Wasserman, whose district includes that part of the lakefront.
Meanwhile, the county still faces the challenge of keeping beachgoers away from the hazardous waters. They’re using a combination of fences, signs, enforcement and public education. But as the May drowning showed, those efforts aren’t always enough to prevent tragedy.
“We have hot days,” Wasserman says. “People don’t see danger. They see water,” and jump in, even though “they’re taking their lives into their hands.”
Lake Michigan’s raw power and fluctuating depth have shaped McKinley’s story. As the lake rose to record levels in the 1980s, its waves wiped out the original beach and washed up on Lincoln Memorial Drive. The county responded with a reconstruction effort that created a miniature bay sheltered by rocky breakwaters on either side.
That solution worked well for more than three decades, engineering consultant Heather Stabo told the board’s parks committee on May 24, the day after the most recent drowning. But over the years, the rising waters eroded the sand on the lake bottom between the breakwaters, contributing to the formation of rip currents, according to a study by Stabo’s company, SEH Inc.
The SEH study, commissioned by the county, found the depth of the lake between the breakwaters is now 6.2 feet, more than twice the roughly 2.5-foot depth when the 1989 reconstruction project was completed. Notably, Lake Michigan was at its highest levels in 1986 and 2020, Stabo told the committee, which Wasserman leads.
Restoring the beach to its intended design, by shoring up the sand, would be the most cost-effective solution, Stabo said. The consultants rejected three other reconstruction options, ranging from $1.5 million to $5.7 million. Walling off the artificial bay to eliminate McKinley Beach altogether would solve the problem at a cost of $2.7 million, but might increase overcrowding on Bradford Beach, the report said.
Even after reconstruction, McKinley Beach will require regular monitoring and maintenance to counteract future erosion and prevent the threat from recurring, Stabo said. That will add new responsibilities to a parks system already struggling with staffing shortages and a backlog of deferred maintenance.
Asked for assurances that the county would be able to keep the beach safe despite its fiscal challenges, Crowley repeated his longstanding view that the state should give local governments more flexibility to raise revenue, including the power to raise the county sales tax from its current 0.5% rate. Milwaukee-area leaders have been lobbying for that idea for several years, but the Republican-controlled Legislature chopped a similar plan out of Democratic Gov. Tony Earl’s 2021-’23 state budget.
Like the lake’s waves, racism has been another powerful force contributing to the threat at McKinley Beach. Wasserman has said the region’s unwritten rules of segregation have kept the crowds at neighboring Bradford Beach predominantly white, while people of color traditionally have felt more welcome at McKinley Beach.
At the same time, national studies have found that racial minorities typically receive less swimming instruction than white youngsters. That means Milwaukee’s least-skilled swimmers are relegated to its most dangerous beach.
All of the four people who drowned at McKinley Beach in 2020 were Black, including three who were trying to save other swimmers. The May 23 victim was a 16-year-old girl of South Asian descent, according to the medical examiner’s office. (Those figures don’t include the January drowning of a white 69-year-old man, which the medical examiner’s office ruled a suicide.)
“It’s mind-blowing to me,” says Crowley, a Milwaukee native who is the first elected Black county executive. “There shouldn’t be a Black beach and a white beach. McKinley Beach is unsafe, but that shouldn’t hinder anyone from using Bradford Beach” or any other beach in Wisconsin.
“This speaks directly to the history of institutional racism in our community,” Crowley adds. “At the end of the day, it’s an equity issue.”
Wasserman agrees, saying, “We have always prided ourselves on being a city by the lake. … Our lake should be enjoyed by everybody.”
While the long-term plan is in progress, here’s a look at which options the county is and isn’t pursuing to prevent drownings for now:
IN: Fences and signs. McKinley is blocked off by a double row of fences, with metal concert-style fencing at the sidewalk and a rickety wooden fence closer to the shoreline. Neither fence is an impenetrable barrier for beachgoers of any age; both have gaps, and Wasserman says he’s seen kids as young as two or three on the beach.
Signs also warn of rip currents and carry such messages as “Danger: no swimming – high risk of drowning” in both English and Spanish.
OUT: Lifeguards. McKinley hasn’t had lifeguards for years, and this is the third year in a row that staffing shortages have eliminated lifeguard coverage at Bradford as well. Signs are posted at both beaches saying, “No lifeguard on duty – swim at your own risk.”
IN: Beach Ambassadors. From the beginning of June to the end of August, a team of four “beach ambassadors” walks around the lakefront between noon and 4 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays. The ambassadors talk to beachgoers about how to stay safe in the lake, including information about that day’s swimming conditions and why McKinley is closed, says Teresa Coronado, outreach and development director at the Milwaukee Community Sailing Center.
This is the second summer for that program, a joint effort of the sailing center, the University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute, Milwaukee Water Commons, Milwaukee Riverkeeper and Coastline Services LLC. The first year was funded partly by a federal grant, and the partners are seeking $128,250 in American Rescue Plan Act funding through the county to continue the program through 2026.
Last year, beach ambassadors provided information to more than 400 people, the partners say in their funding application.
OUT: Stoplights. After a 15-year-old boy drowned in 2012, Port Washington installed a rip-current warning system that now uses traffic-style red, yellow and green lights to tell beachgoers whether it’s safe to swim.
The system’s designer, UW-Madison engineering professor Chin Wu, originally wanted to install it at McKinley and Bradford as well, and he reiterated that interest in 2021. Crowley and Wasserman told Milwaukee Magazine at that time that they would ask parks officials if the system could be part of the solution. Parks officials suggested Wu contact consultants to be included in the study, but he grew frustrated that top county officials weren’t prioritizing his system as Port Washington’s former Mayor Tom Mlada had.
In their study, Stabo’s team says McKinley’s complexities could pose a challenge in deciding which conditions qualify for which color lights. The system also depends on swimmers recognizing their own limitations, which could be another challenge, considering that the 2020 drownings occurred when waves of two feet or less tempted less-experienced swimmers, the SEH study says. Neither Stabo nor Wu responded to emails asking whether their teams had been in touch with each other.
IN: Park rangers. Uniformed, unarmed park rangers patrol the lakefront, enforcing county ordinances until the parks close at 10 p.m., parks system spokesman Ian Everett says. The unit of six full-time and six seasonal rangers – growing to eight full-time and eight seasonal members by the end of July – is responsible for parks and beaches countywide, but sends focused patrols to the lakefront on hot days and during holiday weekends and special events, Everett says.
On the first weekend of July alone, rangers asked 115 people to leave McKinley’s closed area, and beachgoers were “very cooperative,” Everett says.
OUT: Buoy ropes. At the May 24 meeting, Wasserman pushed parks officials to string a series of small buoys between the McKinley breakwaters, connected by a rope that swimmers could grab if rip currents were pulling them out to sea. He said he had seen similar buoy ropes elsewhere.
In the study, consultants say buoy ropes often are used to mark swimming area boundaries, but no precedent exists for using them as the kind of “last-chance rope” that Wasserman envisioned. Wasserman says parks officials told him that current water safety practices have turned against buoy ropes because they create “false hope.”
IN: Sheriff’s deputies. Like parks rangers, sheriff’s deputies also patrol the lakefront. But at the May 24 meeting, Wasserman warned that racial violence could flare if armed law enforcement officers tried to keep young people out of the water on hot days. A supervisor in the sheriff’s parks unit did not return a call seeking details on deputies’ role in enforcing McKinley’s closure.
Ultimately, the county can’t keep everyone off McKinley Beach without 24-hour armed guards and boat patrols — extreme measures that the cash-strapped county government can’t afford, Wasserman said in an interview.
“Instead of putting money into security, let’s just get this fixed as soon as possible,” Wasserman says.