Swimming in Lake Michigan: the straight poop
Quick show of hands: Who wants to go swimming in Lake Michigan?
Well, many of us wouldn’t mind taking a dip once and a while if it wasn’t for the whole, um, beached whale stench. Sadly, our contentious pond’s smelliness isn’t a recent development. One of its first names coined by settlers was “Lake Of The Stinking Water.” But what exactly is that smell? Turns out, it’s an all-natural, organic stew of algae blooms, dead stuff, and seagull poop. That’s right; most of it is not due to those nasty sewage overflows we hear about and, God forbid, see after huge thunderstorms.
When conditions are right (gigantic scary storm, full sewers), the rule is that the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District can forgo cleansing up to 60 million gallons of wastewater every 24 hours. The downpour we had a few weeks ago saw the release of of 170.5 million gallons, though those gallons were treated with chlorine and blended with clean water beforehand. 2010 saw a total of more than 2.8 billion gallons of sewage and wastewater runoff dumped out of our pipes, most of it into the lake. That’s 13.8 times the volume of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf last year.And that’s nothing. Consider the early 1990s: ’91 and ’93 saw nearly 9 billion gallons of overflow dumped into the lake. Thankfully, Milwaukee has since installed the Deep Tunnel system beneath the city that can hold most of the rain and wastewater when it storms. The number of overflows has plummeted from 50-80 per year to a measly 2.5 per year. Supposedly, the sludge clears in a matter of days or weeks.
There is good news for Lake Michigan, though. Bradford Beach earned a Blue Wave Certification from the Clean Beaches Coalition in 2010, Racine apparently has the best tasting tap water in the entire U.S., and Milwaukeeans and out-of-towners still come to the lake in hoards. But are they swimming in it?
The A.V. Club took a stroll along Bradford Beach on a recent hot, windless afternoon to find out. The verdict: a big, fat, smelly “no.” Two hours in the sun and sand yielded not one stroke worthy of being called swimming from the swimsuit-clad masses. Nearly everyone who went in just waded up to an ambiguous self-specified comfort zone, and then immediately turned back around and dried off. Three brave souls (all men) went into the lake up to their necks, and the only one to dunk his head beneath the waves was the poor guy we egged on to do it.
Others had definite limits. “I’ll only go up to my—you know,” says beachgoer Chad Spielmann. Most responded similarly, and stuck close to their beach towels. All in all, swimming in the lake was described as “gross,” “only my feet,” “too cold,” “eww,” and “not going to happen.” This was expected. What wasn’t expected were the three people (all adults, mind you) who responded by asking, “This is Lake Michigan?”
The only people who seemed to really enjoy swimming in Lake Michigan were under the age of 10. “You get used to it and then it’s good,” says one boy, chopping through the water in his green trunks. “We’ve been catching fish with our bare hands!”
Another boy, hair tousled and wet, explains, “Yeah, you sneak up behind them and grab them.” Then they showed us their bucket.
We’re no scientists, but if we had to guess, we’d say diving into Lake Michigan’s 1.3 quadrillion gallons once or twice this summer couldn’t hurt if you bathe regularly. The E. coli levels are monitored at the beaches weekly; hundreds of people do Polar Bear plunges each year and don’t lose their toes; and the MMSD fully treats more than 99 percent of all our wastewater. It’s not like our fair city would allow its denizens to paddle through scuzzy diaper water, right? But do we want to be the ones swimming? Only if you go first.