Beach Monitoring and Closings

Many popular public swimming beaches in Wisconsin have been closed in recent years due to increased monitoring for bacteria. Apparently, the water was unsafe in previous years also, but few samples were taken and no one was aware of the hazard. It is likely that some swimmers developed illnesses in the past without realizing the cause.

To find the current status of Wisconsin beaches, go to:

The summer of 2019 was the seventeenth season of the Wisconsin Great Lakes Beach Monitoring & Notification Program. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) was awarded $213,000 in 2016 by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) to implement the federal Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health (BEACH) Act of 2000. (

However, in January, 2018, Office of Inspector General for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported that the EPA’s “Failure to submit required reports and keep required records limits congressional, public and EPA knowledge about the impact of the agency’s BEACH Act program and decisions regarding the use of taxpayer dollars.” (

In 2016, with this funding, 105 of 189 public beaches along the Wisconsin shorelines of Lake Superior and Lake Michigan were sampled for Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria and the data was used to make beach management decisions and implement a public notification program at these beaches. (

Fourteen Lake Michigan and Lake Superior coastal counties accepted BEACH Act funding and collected samples at selected public beaches one to three times per week. ( Beach advisories and/or closures were posted using signs placed on the beach property in addition to information being provided on a website (

Decisions to post an advisory versus a closure were generally triggered by the amount of E. coli present as compared to thresholds recommended by USEPA. In some cases, advisories and/or closures were prompted by rainfall, known or suspected sewage bypasses, or other factors that have been linked to high E. coli counts in the past, as well as the results of rapid lab methods (qPCR) and/or statistical “Nowcast” models.”

Based on the monitoring results of the 2016 beach season, 82 of the 105 monitored beaches experienced advisories or closures (collectively termed a beach action). A total of 330 beach actions were issued across Wisconsin’s coastal counties, with 90% of them returning to open conditions in two days or less.

Advisories and Closings

The standard beach monitoring and notification method (sometimes called the “persistence model”) can take up 24 hours to complete. As a result, swimming advisories and beach closures are sometimes issued a day or more after the contamination event has occurred. This can expose recreational users to unhealthy levels of pathogens. In addition, actual concentrations of bacteria in the water at the beach can vary over shorter time intervals. This can result in unnecessary advisories or closings, which can have unintended economic impacts.


The DNR staff speculates that Wisconsin beaches may be contaminated due to a combination of factors - such as the location of sewage treatment plant outfalls, the population density of waterfowl, runoff problems, farms and industry.

Comments on DNR's Beach Plan - From CWAC

1. Locate the Causes

It's an outrage that our state legislature and recent governors have not allocated resources to determine the causes of beach contamination. Will newly elected Governor Tony Evers bring more resources to seeking and remedying the cause of beach contamination?

2. Warnings Are Not Enough, Stop the Source

A warning system is not an adequate response to public health threats. Our state and local health officials need to work harder to STOP the threats. Once sources are located, an enforcement program is needed for clean-up.

3. No Beach Should be Classified as "Low Priority"

*Note: In 2016 all Brown County beaches were classified as low priority and did not receive any BEACH Act funding.

  • It's an open invitation for upstream pollution sources to be careless.
  • All waterways should be "swimmable" according to the federal Clean Water Act.
  • Under the Public Trust Doctrine all the waters of Wisconsin belong to the public. Polluters should not be allowed to degrade "low priority" waters or restrict public uses of those waters.

4. Testing Should be Mandatory

No Wisconsin community should be allowed to pretend its beaches are clean, when they have no data. The public should be protected from such basic health threats.

5. Get Money from the Polluters

The fees should be increased for water pollution permits to allow frequent testing of all waterways in Wisconsin. Fees should be set per ton of pollution discharged, to encourage sources to reduce their pollution. Lack of funding is a poor excuse for lack of monitoring. If sources want the privilege of a pollution permit, they should have to prove they're not causing health risks downstream.

6. Stop Blaming the Federal Government

As usual, the state is trying to shift blame to the federal government for lack of funding. But these beaches are not in Washington DC. The state should be testing and taking action regardless of federal rules, and should not wait for full federal funding. In fact, most people have been shocked to learn how lax Wisconsin beach testing and enforcement has been all these years.

7. Tourism Requires Safety

Testing should be frequent and consistent statewide, especially given the $21.6 billion annual value of Wisconsin's tourism industry. Visitors should be able to relax knowing they can go anywhere in the state assured of clean water. At the same time, Wisconsin has a moral responsibility to give proper notice when water is unsafe. LOUD warnings if the water is not clean.

8. Track the Contamination

Testing should be frequent at mouths of rivers, at discharge pipes, at manure run-off sites, and at other potential sources to help track and stop contamination.

9. What About Inland Waters?

Why are only ten inland waters tested in the state testing program? Inland lakes, rivers and streams should also be tested for safe swimming. It's obvious that this program is based entirely on a federal mandate and federal funding, while ignoring the needs of those using other Wisconsin water resources.

10. Neglected Areas

The beach list doesn't include obvious problem spots like Bay Beach in Brown County, or any waters off Oconto County. Bay Beach is important to test, because the Fox River flows directly past it, then along the East Shore north to Door County. Because of the dominant flow pattern, Bay Beach could signal a key source of contamination for this entire stretch of shoreline, and would help warn citizens along adjacent private shorelines. Bay Beach is currently posted to warn against swimming, due to suspended sediments in the water, but official state and local plans include the ultimate goal of opening Bay Beach to swimming. It is still often used by swimmers and waders every summer, and they deserve to know the true condition of the water. Bay Beach serves a large metro area, with a high concentration of low income people living nearby, unable to afford vacations to clean northern beaches. As a matter of environmental justice, they deserve equal treatment for this abused beach. Lack of data here is unacceptable.

11. Public Hearings Needed

We need town hall-style public hearings, where we all get together to hear hear not only DNR updates, but also to take public comment. This would give DNR officials, the legislature, governor’s office, and the news media a truer sense of public opinion. Outrage is stifled and democracy dies as the public feels their comments aren't considered in DNR's final decisions. Legislators never hear the debate.

For More Information on Beaches

Wisconsin's Beach Program - Including an Interactive Map of County Beaches - Wisconsin DNR -

Health/Quality –

Pollution-related Beach Closings - Natural Resources Defense Council -

Bacterial Contamination and Beach Closings –State of the Beach/State Reports/WI/Water Quality-

© Clean Water Action Council

P.O. Box 9144

Green Bay, WI 54308

(920) 421-8885

Office location:
A307 MAC Hall, UW-Green Bay
2420 Nicolet Drive
Green Bay, WI 54311