For the fifth straight year Racine's North Beach earned a national certification for water quality and habitat conservation.
The Clean Beaches Council once again designated North Beach a "Blue Wave Beach." It's a prestigious award that city officials, led by Dr. Julie Kinzelman, make look easy.
But 10 years ago when the City Health Department began applying for grants to study, and eventually clean up, the beach, the sandy lakefront property was a mess. The beach was frequently closed due to concerns about the water quality and there was little going on there for people to do.
Now the beach is a hotspot of summer activity. Thousands of people visit the beach to swim, hangout at the Oasis or checkout events like the EVP Professional Volleyball Tournament and the Spirit of Racine Triathlon.
Kinzelman, who has given talks about beaches around the world, said a team approach made North Beach's turnaround possible. One example was how the health and parks departments worked closely together to study the best way to comb the beach. They found that scraping the surface and creating a picturesque sandscape actually increased the amount of bacteria that could wash into the water. Now they use a much deeper comb to prevent bacteria from growing, Kinzelman said.
The city also completed some important stormwater utility projects, banned dogs and feeding seagulls on the beach and worked with volunteers to plant grasses and create mounds that prevent contaminated rain water from washing into the lake.
It's this kind of problem solving that other cities along the Great Lakes and around the country are taking note of and trying to replicate, Kinzelman said. While universities and government scientists can share research, Racine offers a real-world example of how to clean a beach - and the positive effect it can have on a community.
Work on Racine's North Beach began under former Mayor Jim Smith after the public complained about how often the beach was closed. The issue came to Kinzelman as a public safety concern. How can the city clean the beach so people can use it without getting sick?
That question led to improved water quality - and all of the fun stuff that came with it. As North Beach came back to life, the North Beach Oasis opened, the city built the Kids Cove playground and events started to appear. The beach is now, arguably, the best beach in southeastern Wisconsin and possibly the entire state.
Kinzelman, a Racine native who was hired by the city in 1990 as a lab technologist, and others are now working on tests that will reduce the amount of time it takes to get back reliable information on water quality at the beach. Racine is working on a DNA test that can determine water quality in three hours - six times faster than the current test. (Incidentally, the test the city uses is for E. coli, but the E. coli is only an indicator of water quality. Unlike E. coli in food, the E. coli found in the lake is itself not harmful - it's just a sign that other contaminants are located in the water.)
The rapid test appears to work, Kinzelman said, but it needs Congressional approval before it can become the new standard. A bill was introduced in the House to allow the tests, and the Senate is also expected to take up a proposal.
Along with North Beach, Kinzelman is also studying water quality in the Root River. The intensive effort is designed to provide public officials with data to make decisions on how to clean and protect the river, she said.
One example is if Waukesha receives permission to tap Lake Michigan it will have to return water to the lake through the Root River, Kinzelman said. If that happens, Racine will want a baseline to judge whether the Waukesha water is harming the Root River.
"You can't gauge change unless you know what you have now," Kinzelman said.
Mayor John Dickert celebrated the designation by noting North Beach was the first beach in Wisconsin to receive the Blue Wave honor.
“This is a great day for the city of Racine” said Mayor John Dickert. “Once again the efforts of Julie Kinzelman working together with the Parks Dept. and Public Works have rewarded our citizens and visitors with one of the cleanest beaches in the country.” For more information on the Clean Beaches Council see here.
Dickert added, “This reminds people across the country that Racine is one of the best destinations in the Midwest to spend your summers.”
The news comes as the mayor prepares to attend the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative Conference this month, where the use of water from Lake Michigan will be one of the topics.
The first national environmental certification for beaches, the Blue Wave designation is given to beaches which uphold a rigorous set of environmental, ethical, and water quality standards.