The amount of closed and advisory days at America’s beaches spiked 29 percent last year to its highest level in the past 21 years, according to a recent report from the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC). Unfortunately, NRDC found that the region with the most frequently contaminated beachwater was the Great Lakes, where 15% of beachwater samples exceeded health standards. In addition, the top ten list of U.S. beaches with the most persistent contamination problems included two Wisconsin beaches: Eichelman Beach in Kenosha county and South Shore Beach in Milwaukee.
The majority of these closures and advisories were issued due to high bacteria levels in the water, indicating the presence of human or animal waste. The primary sources of these pollutants are stormwater runoff and sewage overflow. Climate change is causing this contamination to become more frequent, explaining the 29% increase in national beach closures from 2009. According to the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts (WICCI), climate change will cause heavy rainfall events to increase, leading to beach contamination becoming more frequent and widespread due to increased water runoff levels.
The Great Lakes provide recreation to over 30 million people, and we need to ensure that these lakes are protected from contamination from polluted runoff and sewage. While visiting a beach on Lake Michigan, I talked to some beachgoers about their favorite parts of the Great Lakes. One of the beachgoers said that his favorite part of spending time at the lake was, “getting back in touch with nature, because it’s easy to forget about it when you don’t necessarily appreciate it during your daily life.” Another woman I spoke with said, “I love the peacefulness that the lake makes me feel. The fresh air… the relaxing feeling I get from coming here and walking along the shore is something I can’t get in many other places.”
This peaceful and relaxing quality along with the fresh air that the Great Lakes provide is in jeopardy due to increasing pollution, and one of the beachgoers I talked to shared this concern when he said, “I think the pollution of the lakes is what scares me the most. Just the acidity of the water and the sewage that leaks into it. The amount of foreign stuff in the lakes today is just awful, and it’s going to start causing some problems, if it hasn’t already.”
The Great Lakes are a recreational outlet for over 30 million people, and it’s important that we understand why this contamination is occurring as well as recognize and implement solutions to the problem. The best way to keep pollution out of the Great Lakes is to prevent it from the start by using smarter, greener infrastructure on land, including green roofs, parks, and rain barrels. These innovations allow precipitation to filter back into the ground naturally instead of running off into the lakes, reducing the amount of contamination that gets into the Great Lakes. Another beachgoer I spoke to said that her favorite parts about the lake are, “the sounds, the sights, the smells, all of the senses of nature. The air just smells different when you come to the lake.” By working towards keeping the lakes clean, we can maintain the beautiful sounds, sights, and smells of our Great Lakes.
-Contributed by Taylor Lundberg, Water Intern.