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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Thursday, July 31, 2014

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Ready, set ...
Ready, set ...
Splash.
Splash.
Boats aren't this guy's only concern.
Boats aren't this guy's only concern.

Thinking of swimming in the Milwaukee River?

On Sunday, I saw a guy on the Riverwalk near Rock Bottom Brewery stand up and dive into the Milwaukee River. He proceeded to swim across to a ladder, climb up, stretch, dive back in and swim back.

Somewhat impressive, incredibly stupid.

Thankfully, according to Milwaukee Riverkeeper, there are "piers and safety ladders in the Downtown sections of the Milwaukee, which are maintained by the city and which can be used to crawl out of the river in emergencies."

I've seen several "jumpers" in my years of living near the Milwaukee Riverwalk and while, at first, jumping into the river seems funny, I always shake my head, hope and pray that the individual gets a good cleansing and checks his various orifices for whatever may be floating, swimming or just festering in our river.

I'm not an expert, so I reached out to some experts in an attempt to get the real deal on what could happen to this Sunday jumper or to you, should you feel so inclined to take a dip in the Milwaukee River.

Cecilia Gilbert, permits and communications manager at the Department of Public Works tells me, "Back in the early 1990s the city used to sponsor RiverSplash! and we had water skiing demonstrations on the Milwaukee River. Part of our process was to inform the Harbor Commission and the Coast Guard to get permission (to exceed the 5 miles per hour, no wake rule), plus secure the permission of the Health Commissioner who made sure the bacterial count wasn't too high to be harmful. We had to get this in writing for the participants in the water skiing demonstration. We were told that anyone who fell in the water had to shower immediately after being in the water with very hot water and antibacterial soap."

Paul A. Biedrzycki, director of Disease Control and Environmental Health for the City, added, "should (individuals) come into contact with the water, proper hygiene should be observed afterward including washing affected areas with soap and water.   Note that this is a recommendation and will not be enforced by the Milwaukee Health Department." 

Gilbert also told me that the city would schedule its now defunct canoe race with local politicians at the same time as the water skiing demos. Ensuring, of course, that local pols didn't disintegrate if their boats tipped. It's tough, but I'll keep my editorial comments on this matter to myself.  

Bottom line, it's not safe to swim in the Milwaukee River.

"Let's put it this way," said Karen M. Schapiro, JD, executive director of the Milwaukee Riverkeeper, "it's better to paddle in the river -- don't swim in it!

"Where this guy was swimming is part of the Milwaukee AOC (Area of Concern), which has been a sink bed for pollution coming from upstream portions of Menomonee and Milwaukee Rivers," said Schapiro.

"The river does not meet the water quality standards of the Clean Water Act that would make it suitable for swimming. The river is far less polluted than it was decades ago, but there are still problems like bacteria and pathogens (fecal coliforms and E. coli at excessive levels) in some areas, phosphorus pollution, contaminated PCB laden sediments in some areas, etc."

Fecal coliforms! Yikes.

"Will this person get sick from a quick dip? Unlikely, but it's just not a good idea," added Schapiro.

I've traveled on the Milwaukee River Skimmer. It's a fun voyage. The boat and its crew collect junk at the river's surface. I recall the captain telling me that he can clean the top of the river but the bottom and surging water from Lake Michigan are where real problems lurk.

Yes, surging underwater tidal waves.  If I were diving in the river, that would scare me. It should scare you, too.

Cheryl Nenn from Milwaukee Riverkeeper explained, "There is not an undertow, but there is a ‘seiche' or surging of water from Lake Michigan, which comes with wind patterns, that can create a tidal like effect. Often, the biggest impact is that it feels that one is paddling or swimming against the current going both directions."

Rest assured, though, much work is being done to improve Milwaukee's rivers. Schaprio urged me (and you, too) to check out the Web site of the Southeastern Wisconsin Water Watershed Trust.

She also noted that the DNR is working on new regulations to reduce phosphorous and other runoff.

I'm all about Milwaukee leveraging its water and waterways as assets and, of course, I want them to be as clean as possible.

Yet, I'm not jumping into any river anytime soon.

But, if you're thinking of it you might want to take the above words to heart or -- at least -- find the guy in the pictures and ask him how he's feeling. 

Talkbacks

kman8900 | June 8, 2010 at 12:57 p.m. (report)

Maybe if MMSD didn't dump our toliets into the river, we could swim in it.

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alba | June 8, 2010 at 12:48 p.m. (report)

In the old days there were a bunch of swimming schools on the Milwaukee River. What would it take to clean up the river so people could swim in it again? If enough money was available, is there current technology that can do the job?

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zcmack | June 8, 2010 at 11:51 a.m. (report)

fecal coliform* bacteria

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