Green Infrastructure Resurrects

a Polluted Beach

A coalition of more than 20 government agencies, business and community groups developed and implemented a $705,500 plan for reducing bacterial pollution at Bradford Beach, a Lake Michigan beach on Milwaukee’s north side.


For decades, stormwater that fell on parts of Milwaukee was collected in pipes and discharged onto the shoreline at Bradford Beach, a 27-acre county park on the Lake Michigan coast. The downside of that approach to stormwater management became apparent in 2004, when elevated concentrations of E. coli bacteria in the sand and water forced health officials to close the beach on numerous occasions. The beach became known as Milwaukee’s dirtiest, the public abandoned it and the recurrent pollution tarnished the image of Milwaukee’s waterfront. Cognizant of the beach’s important role in shaping Milwaukee’s identity, officials from the city, county and Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District partnered with researchers at the University of Wisconsin’s Great Lakes WATER Institute to identify the cause of the bacterial pollution and find solutions. Scientists discovered that urban stormwater discharged onto the beach, along with a large population of seagulls, was causing bacterial pollution in the sand and water. The county hired the engineering firm AECOM to design a series of rain gardens that were installed around the stormwater discharge pipes and parking lot at the beach. The gardens absorb and filter the stormwater, which helped lower bacteria concentrations in the sand and adjoining waters of Lake Michigan. The county also used dogs to scare away the seagulls, thereby reducing the quantity of bacteria-laden bird feces on the beach. When the bacteria problem was resolved, the county hired lifeguards and opened a concession stand to lure the public back to Bradford Beach.

Resource Challenges Addressed

  • Persistent bacterial contamination
  • Excessive polluted runoff


A front end loader moves sand on Bradford Beach

Construction underway at Bradford Beach. Photo credit: Carolyn Betz, University of Wisconsin.

Results and Accomplishments

Bradford Beach is now one of the most popular beaches in the greater Milwaukee area. It is a hotspot for beach volleyball, hosting numerous recreational leagues and professional tournaments. The beach also hosts concerts and numerous other events, making it a popular destination for families and beachgoers of all ages. In 2009, Bradford Beach earned the coveted Blue Wave certification from the Clean Beaches Council. The national award is given to America’s healthiest beaches. The resurrection of Bradford Beach was evident on a hot Sunday afternoon in May 2010. With temperatures in the 80s, thousands of Milwaukee residents flocked to the beach, creating a traffic jam that forced the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Department to close the road leading to the park for a period of time.