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Water is clean for first Milwaukee River open swim

MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- Can you swim in the Milwaukee River? Yes, and dozens of people will on August 11th for the first Milwaukee River Open Swim. The US Masters race, the Cream City Classic is put on by the Milwaukee Water Commons and other sponsors.

"There's been a lot of clean up efforts in the last number of decades. The Milwaukee River used to be very, very polluted as were many of our rivers across the country from industry to dumping, and it's come a long way. Part of what we're doing with the swim is celebrating how far it's come through the efforts of multiple organizations across the city, better policy, better clean up upstream, removal of dams and historical contamination, but also talking about how much further it would need to come for us to feel comfortable swimming in it on a regular basis," said Kirsten Shead, co-executive director at Milwaukee Water Commons.

Over 30 people are already signed up for the mile and a half race. The coast guard, lifeguards, police, and fire will assist with safety for the swimmers during the race. Although, Shead knows many people are concerned with the safety of the water itself.

"I've heard people say, 'If you touch the Milwaukee River you need to go to the hospital,' I mean, there's just some ugly narratives about how clean the water is, and it's just not true. That being said there's still work to be done."

Shead says she expected that reaction, but their event getting the truth out there.

"We've definitely gotten a lot of interesting questions about safety, a lot of reactions of disgust, but we think those bridged really good conversations about why do we have these stories about our water?" said Shead.

There was already a test swim of the race. The Milwaukee Riverkeeper took samples on July 26th at four different locations along the route.

Three samples came back with no E. coli. One sample came back with an E. coli reading of 100/100mL. The beach safe standard is 235/100mL.

The Riverkeeper and Milwaukee Water Common also looked at the last 10 years of data for the race section of the river and chose the time and place of the race for the following reasons:

"The location and date of this race were chosen specifically with water quality concerns in mind. The swim will occur in the downstream portion of the Milwaukee River where active mixing of water from Lake Michigan (known as seiche) creates improved water quality conditions. In addition, based on historical data, water quality in this lower portion of the river meets E. coli water quality standards (the same standard used for beach health) 100% of the time in August, based on data taken monthly since 2006 (at the Milwaukee River at Wells station). Water quality declines further upstream—the Milwaukee River at Walnut St. only meets water quality standards 77% of the time in August. Holding the race in mid-August also ensures the least amount of precipitation, which reduces the potential for storm-water runoff of pollutants into area waterways."

Milwaukee Water Commons worked with the city to get permission and permits to hold the race. It is illegal to swim in the Milwaukee River, and it is not recommended to swim without the efforts, planning, and testing done for the Cream City Classic.

The idea came from interviews with 1,300 locals.

"Community members came up with: all our rivers should be clean, swimmable and fishable. The swimmable part was a little bit unique so this idea came out of that initiative," said Shead.

They were also inspired by other river swims, including the Charles River Swim in Boston.

Milwaukee Riverkeepers will continue to monitor and test the conditions and levels of the water leading up to the race. "The event will be canceled in the event of water quality tests that do not meet safety standards for recreational use in area rivers or local beaches."

For more information, visit: https://www.creamcityclassic.org/

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