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What's that smell? Near Oak Creek lakefront, it's green algae cladophora

The Lake Michigan lakefront north of Bender Beach.

The Lake Michigan lakefront north of Bender Beach. Photo By C.T. Kruger

Aug. 28, 2013

Oak Creek — When the "rotten chicken" stench blows in off Lake Michigan, Claude Wojtysiak is swept inside his Carollton neighborhood home, forced to close the windows and shut out the summer.

It's a smell Wojtysiak has learned to live with, though not happily. And he's right, it is a smell of rottenness — made by decomposing algae along the shore.

"It's really bad," he said. "When I'm inside I don't notice it, unless the windows are open. If you're sitting outside, forget it. It almost makes you nauseous after a while."

Great Lakes Coordinator Andrew Fayram said the green algae cladophora has been growing in greater and greater quantities in Lake Michigan over the past five years. As it washes on shore, stuck to debris, it decomposes, creating an odor that carries on the prevailing winds.

Mayor Stephen Scaffidi said city officials have had several meetings with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District and homeowners, all aimed at finding out what can be done about the smell. But thus far, it seems the problem won't be fading any time soon.

Invasives boost algae

Cladophora is thriving, Fayram said, thanks to the work of invasive zebra and quagga mussels that have taken root in Lake Michigan. The mussels are filter feeders that clean up the lake by eating particulates in the water. This, he said, has the side effect of allowing more light deeper into the lake, a condition the algae like. The mussels also secrete phosphorous, food for the algae.

The algae will sluff off the bottom of the lake and trap dead fish and other organisms as it rises to the surface. If the winds or currents wash the algae and dead organism mix to the beach or rocks, it will rot.

Wojtysiak started noticing the odor two or three years ago. He lives next to sustainable agriculture specialist Growing Power's compost piles, but having had experience working on farms, he knew that wasn't what he was smelling.

Luckily, he doesn't smell it every day. Some days, when the wind is blowing west, he can't smell it at all. And it hasn't been a problem in colder weather.

When he goes to Bender Park, he hardly ever smells the algae. Other days, he can smell it at city's border with South Milwaukee and still other days he can smell it at Bradford Beach.

The migrating nature of the smell, according to Milwaukee County Parks spokesperson Jeff Baudry, is due to shifts in wind direction and currents.

"In a nutshell, it's all forces of nature," Baudry said. "Prevailing winds will bring it in and slide it out."

Fighting back hard

While the county Parks Department does hire cleanup crews to remove the algae from beaches, their efforts are stymied in many ways. The nature of the algae itself, resembling a large, wet, rotting carpet, makes removal slow. The algae usually dies out in late summer and early fall — bad news for a department that relies heavily on seasonal workers, often college students. When the cladophora is at its worse, the clean-up crews are back in the classroom.

Heather Trotter, an Oak Creek resident, said she is saddened by the smell.

"It makes me want to stay away from the beaches even more," she added.

The city is in the midst of turning the lakefront near Wojtysiak's home into public parks and business development.

Scaffidi said he recognizes the odor is a nuisance but remains confident it won't interfere with development efforts or the public's ability to enjoy the lakefront there.

What's that smell?

■ While the cladaphora may be confused with sewage, Bill Graffin, information manager for Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District said that water and gas levels from a nearby plant are low. However, if a resident believes an odor is coming from the plant, they should call MMSD at (414) 272-5100.

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