Chasing Away the Birds

The long and detailed effort since 2002 to identify the sources of E.coli contaminating beach water, and then determining how it travels there by surface water and stormwater runoff – especially after large rain events – caused Door County municipalities to look at ways they could improve their beaches to achieve better water quality.

What has followed over those years has been a reinvention of local beaches using a variety of techniques. Overwhelmingly, those changes have included some way of chasing away the birds that gather on shoreline areas. 

“All the birds would walk to shore and all that would wash right into the beach,” said Greg Kleinheinz, the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh professor of environmental engineering technology who has been working with the County of Door on beach-water monitoring since the program began in 2003. “The biggest thing is they changed the avian behavior; they kept the birds from going on shore and crapping all over the place.”

That’s important because it’s not just the water that becomes contaminated. E.coli thrives in beach sand as long as the conditions remain favorably moist and low.

High and Dry Beaches

“The whole thing about bacteria is it’s a living organism and you need time for it to die,” said Greg Coulthurst, conservationist for the Door County Soil and Water Conservation Department (SWCD). “Sunlight and high and dry sand are all needed.”

With the Door County Public Health Department dealing with water contamination once beach-water monitoring began, the SWCD worked with the technical fixes at the beaches. Coulthurst did not lead the department when those began, but he was with the SWCD, having first joined in 1993.

“A lot of times, it was higher and dryer beaches, and treating the storm water,” Coulthurst said, which carries with it more pollutants than just fecal bacteria, including heavy metals, oils, sediment and the phosphorus that causes algae growth and can result in fish kills.

“We could see that E.coli levels were elevated after a storm event,” Coulthurst continued, but it wasn’t of the avian variety from storm sewers, but rather pets and wildlife. 

Having gained source-identification data and established methods of transport, Coulthurst’s department worked with municipalities and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to mitigate the two main culprits at beaches that caused E.coli and other pollutants to wash into beach water: stormwater outlets and waterfowl feces. 

Over the years, this pollution prevention has included multiple grants and cost-share programs in partnership with municipalities to redesign beaches. Storm drains have been moved where feasible, and filtered when not; water has been rerouted, halted and filtered, where it once ran over land; tile lines have been installed to drain subsurface water where it pooled on beaches; sand has been added to create higher and drier beaches and dunes; rain gardens have been installed; and dune grass plantings have been widely used.

That’s not to say the water no longer becomes contaminated. Large rain events still stir things up. Neither have all communities opted – or found it economically possible – to remediate the biggest problem areas. There’s also the stray occurrence, such as a leaking septic line flowing down the bluff and into the beach water, as happened in August 2021, closing the Ephraim beach for a couple of days. 

What Works, What Doesn’t

Today, Door County beach work has shifted largely to maintenance, or tweaking past improvements for better performance, or improving newly acquired beach property, as with the case of the Village of Egg Harbor (see related story). Priorities have also shifted within the SWCD.

“Back in the day we had an employee working on this full time,” Coulthurst said. “Now, we have a better understanding of how it works and when a municipality goes to the DNR, we put our heads together on what has worked, and what is different.”

Given all that’s now known today about minimizing water pollution, Coulthurst can look at a beach and automatically see what could be changed to create better water quality. 

“I’ll pick on Fish Creek,” Coulthurst said. “They wanted to keep their parking lot and lawn and those are deal breakers. The lawn attracts geese. The geese love to eat the grass. And if you have a parking lot you have the oil and greases running off. The bacteria is closing the beaches, but what else is going in there. If you have hard surfaces, you need filtration before it gets in the water.”

Some lessons have only come recently, as when Lake Michigan water levels peaked in 2020 before beginning to recede again.

“The lesson learned is you have to look at what high water can be and that’s where you should start designing,” Coulthurst said. “You have to plan for the worst and then go from there. Should some of our dunes and plantings have gone higher? Yes. Was it possible? I don’t know.”

He’s also not a fan of “groins” – jetty-like structures designed as a solution to beach erosion. The Village of Sister Bay installed one during its waterfront improvements in 2015-16, but Coulthurst had one removed from the Village of Egg Harbor during 2009 improvements there.

“What it does do is protect from the weather and elements and sand migration, but it also traps the bacteria,” Coulthurst said. “And I don’t know if the geese like it.”

The Economic Benefits of Environmental Improvements

Officials say beach improvements increase water quality in Door County, and they also agree that improved beaches and beach water attract more people. What hasn’t been determined yet is how increased visitation impacts water quality; whether more people in and around the water means higher incidences of advisories and closures.

“That’s the variable that nobody seems to know how to calculate,” Coulthurst said.

From a Public Health point of view, busier beaches may be contributing to elevated E.coli levels. Allie McDonald, environmental health specialist with the Door County Department of Health and Human Services, listed “a high number of people in and around the water” as one of a number of main culprits leading to elevated E.coli levels. 

More people at the beach may impair water quality, but that increased visitation boosts local economies. That’s what Kleinheinz and his team discovered when looking at the economic impact of remediated beaches on the local economy. The improved beaches became attractive enough to become a destination, he said. That brought more people, who spent money at local businesses and were willing to pay more for a better beach and better water quality.

“Accidentally, it was discovered that we don’t have to do the environmental or economic right thing, we can do both at the same time,” Kleinheinz said. “It’s 20 years and you look back at the historical picture and the beaches have really become a showpiece for part of that water resource, and the reason people come there.”