While some may have their doubts, water quality experts assure that participants in the USA Triathlon Age Group National Championships in Milwaukee won’t swim in poop this weekend.
E. coli levels – the major indicator of sewage in the water – have remained well below harmful thresholds throughout the summer in the lagoon off Henry Maier Festival Park, based on the results of tests conducted by scientists at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee and shared with the City of Milwaukee Health Department.
The E. coli levels in samples taken on Aug. 2 at seven locations along the swim course topped out at 13.4 parts per 100 milliliters, far below the 235 MPN/100 threshold that prompts warnings of health risk, according to the city health department. The highest E. coli level, in a sample taken on June 7, was 33.2 MPN/100.
Samples were gathered near the start area again on Monday, and tests showed no harmful levels of toxins.
“The competition participants can feel safe that the water is free of any sewage contamination,” said Todd Miller, who has analyzed the samples as an assistant professor of environmental and occupational health in the Joseph J. Zilber School of Public Health. “The tests also indicate it’s free of chemicals you would find in sewage.
“I would say that everybody takes some risk of chemical and biological exposure when they enter a lake. I think they’ve done a good job of limiting the risk.”
That area of the lakeshore is removed from any combined sewer overflows, he said.
Miller also said the lagoon is free of Cladophora, the blue-green algae that blossoms in deeper water and decomposes in a smelly heap each summer north of Bradford Beach. The break wall built to protect Lakeshore State Park and the Discovery World Museum prevents the inflow of algae, and Cladophora has not grown in the small inlet, he said.
Skeptics have questioned the location of the swim for the USA Triathlon Championships, noting the lagoon has been posted as a “no swimming” area since Lakeshore State Park opened. Warnings of harmful E. coli levels at other beaches along the Lake Michigan shoreline, particularly South Shore Beach, and the ranking of Milwaukee-area waters as some of the worst in the country, add to the fears.
Ted Shue, who will compete in the championships, is part of a group that swims almost daily from Klode Park, in Whitefish Bay, and has had some reservations about the water quality further south.
“Saying I’m concerned about the USAT swim may be a bit strong, and I’m sure any concerns I have will be quickly dispelled once I log my first swim on the USAT course,” he said. “Our daily Lake Michigan swim group has wanted to swim at Lakeshore State Park since it opened.”
They will get their first chance on Friday, when the course is open for practice from 11AM – 1PM.
At 7:30 a.m. Saturday, the first wave of more than 4,300 triathletes will drop into the swim course from the dock at the Discovery World Museum. Those competing in the Olympic distance race will swim 1,500 meters, bike 40 kilometers and run 10 kilometers on a course extending north along Lincoln Memorial Dr.
The sprint distance races will be contested on Sunday.
The 4,300 registered participants is a record for the age group national championships, held since 1983. The 2012 event, held in Burlington, Vt., featured a record total of more than 3,500 registered competitors, and combined participation in the two races has more than doubled since 2010.
With a few days of preparation left, organizers are confident in the water quality and their work to host one of the largest amateur sporting events in Milwaukee.
Nearly 600 volunteers have signed on to assist along the routes and in the transition area, just north of the Summerfest grounds.
“We have been working very closely with the Department of Public Health, which is continually monitoring the quality of water at the swim venue,” said Lindsay Wyskowski, communications manager for USA Triathlon. “The most recent tests for the lagoon where the swim will be held have come back clear and we are pleased with the quality of the water at this time.”