Milwaukee residents have the opportunity we’ve all been waiting for: A chance to swim in the Milwaukee River.
The Cream City Classic is a 1½ mile open swim. It’s Aug. 11.
The race is hosted by the Milwaukee Water Commons, Milwaukee Riverkeeper, the Harbor District and Sea Grant.
So far, there are 29 people signed up for the race. And don’t worry, they’re testing the water beforehand.
The course starts in the water at Erie Street in the Third Ward (near Riverfront Pizza), goes to the St. Paul Avenue bridge and back.
“Half of the response has been ‘this is amazing’ and half has been ‘ick,’ ” said Cheryl Nenn, riverkeeper at Milwaukee Riverkeeper. “I think we are pushing the envelope a little bit here. One of the goals is to inspire people to think differently about the river. We have this Clean Water Act, and it said that we would have swimmable water by 1987, and we are a long way from that. We’ve come a long way, but we have a lot of work to do.”
The organizations will be marking off the race area from boats.
“There will be safety boats. City of Milwaukee police will be out. Coast Guard will be out. It’s probably going to be overkill,” said Nenn. “We have safety kayakers as well. If people get tired and want to lean on a kayak, they can.”
They’ll be testing the water quality for high levels of bacteria. Nenn and Kirsten Shead, co-executive director of the Milwaukee Water Commons, said they’re the same standards that are used for the Milwaukee-area beaches. The skimmer will go out the night before to remove debris. There will also be a shower trailer available.
“The Milwaukee River has a bad reputation in our city, but it’s a beautiful river,” said Shead. “There are fishable sections of the river, and we want there to be swimmable sections, too.”
“We’re not recommending that anyone should just jump in the river downtown anytime,” said Shead. “Our goal is that one day we would just be able to swim in them whenever we want. But we’re not there yet.”
Open swims like this have happened in other cities with historically polluted riverways, like the Charles River in Boston. People used to swim in the Milwaukee River at swimming schools, although Nenn noted that the river may not have been clean enough for swimming then either.
“It is not for the meek. It is 1½ miles on the Milwaukee River. You have to be very fit to do that swim,” said Nenn.
“It’s a swim, but it’s also a statement that we have a right to clean, swimmable water,” Nenn said. “We have these great beaches, but we’re working toward clean swimmable rivers.”
And if you’re not up for swimming, you can always watch.