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This summer, millions of people in the Great Lakes region will pack up and follow the sun in search of nature's nirvana – a perfect beach getaway.
They'll resurrect the Dick Dale surf-guitar songs – this time, maybe on iPod or CD, and re-discover the "Beach Blanket" antics of Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello on DVD. But what these modern dune explorers will find when they unfurl their bright Sponge Bob Squarepants beach blankets will vary.
Some will discover "no swimming" signs due to elevated E. coli levels crushing hopes of cooling off at the water's edge. Others will find dunes and pristine sandy stretches prime for playing in and out of the water. Still others will skip stones and photograph brilliant sunsets.
About 190 public beaches align Wisconsin's Great Lakes coasts. Despite their magnetism to those in search of sun and fun, beachfronts are under stress. Efforts underway pinpoint the problems as well as to stave off dune mining, erosion and exotic species invasions.
Several Lake Michigan communities have monitored water quality at their beaches for decades.
Dave White is director of Keep Our Beaches Open, a grassroots organization in Racine raising awareness of beach water quality and concerns through stormwater drain marking, educational fairs and more.
In 2003, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, in cooperation with local, state and federal authorities, began implementing the federal BEACH (Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health) Act to effectively monitor water quality and notify the public of beach health at coastal beaches.
Thanks to the group's efforts, Wisconsin beach visitors can expect to find more useful information on beach water quality, including signage in English, Spanish and Hmong along with website updates and more.
White says misconceptions about beach closings remain and the public may still be afraid to visit their community beaches.
"There have been enough beach closings that it doesn't even occur to some people that they can go to the beach," White says.
Wisconsin's coastal beaches are revered as a summer playground, but fewer people appreciate the beach as a unique community, a frontier for land colonization, a nursery for plant and animal species, a battleground for public and private access, a way station for migrating species and an environmental contamination indicator.
"Going to a pool rather than your community beach is one more disconnect between us and the natural world," White says. "Beach pollution affects our drinking water, wildlife and aquatic species that live in the lake. This is not just about a beach closing ruining my day."
So, gather the sunglasses and sunscreen. Kick back with the sound of waves in the background and let's explore this ever-changing shoreline and efforts underway to help people reach the beach.
Natasha Kassulke is the associate editor of Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine.