Experts discuss river safety, restoration after crews find missing child's body in Kinnickinnic River
Updated June 17, 4 PM CT
The bodies of two men who went into a rain-swollen drainage ditch in Milwaukee to try to save a 10-year-old boy have been recovered, officials said Thursday.
Following a severe thunderstorm Monday, rescue crews are continuing their search for two men after recovering the body of a 10-year-old boy from the Kinnickinnic River.
Witnesses told police the boy fell into a drainage ditch near 27th and Loomis that leads to the river. Two men, ages 34 and 37, attempted to rescue him and were also taken by the rushing water.
Milwaukee Fire Chief Aaron Lipski said a volunteer searcher spotted the boy’s body near 16th and Cleveland, about a mile from where he was swept away.
"We've been able to recover and deliver this young man at least back to the family has some awareness," Lipski said in a statement. "But you know, we're not even touching that pain right now. We still haven't located the other two reported missing, and I think that weighs heavy on everybody's mind."
Milwaukee Riverkeeper Executive Director, Jennifer Bolger Breceda, says the concrete slabs on the KK River can appear deceivingly dry.
Breceda says some people don’t think of the channels as a river because of its cement sides and sometimes shallow depth. But despite it looking like a drainage ditch or sewer pipe, it’s a river that can become unsafe during heavy rainfall.
"The amount of flow and the amount of water the volume of water that can build up in those concrete channels can shift within minutes and it may not look like it's moving that fast either. But once you get in there, it can be extremely dangerous."
She says the original flood management design doesn’t accommodate for how water flows.
"Rivers meander, they snake back and forth," Breceda says. "It's called a floodplain, we expect it to flood, and so we know it's going to flood. We know there's going to be high levels of water there at times, so building a structure right in the floodplain is not necessarily smart development."
The drainage channels date back to the 1960s when homes were being built closer to waterways.
Kevin Shafer, executive director at the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District or MMSD, says at the time, installing concrete slabs was considered a “state-of-the-art” method to reduce floods in the U.S.
"Doing that type of flood management also has some very serious negative consequences, one of them being the tragic death that we saw this week," says Shafer.
Since the early 2000s, MMSD has removed 4.4 miles of concrete at these sites to increase public safety and restore the natural habitat. Today, there’s still 14.4 miles of concrete remaining.
Shafer says restoration efforts are continuing upstream from Pulaski Park. He says the goal is to create a wider corridor for rushing water, reducing the risk of drownings.
MMSD is assisting in the search for the two men."It's something we never want to happen, but it's always been one of the reasons why we're taking the concrete out," says Shafer. "We're doing it with a flood management mission, but we know that if we take that concrete out, we'll also make it a safer, better place for people."
Shafer says work will be done at Jackson and Wilson Parks. He says the projects will enhance the recreational opportunities and natural settings at the parks while making the areas safer.
"That's kind of where we're at with the Kinnickinnic River right now—just through this process of trying to get the work done as quickly as possible and remove the risk of flooding from homes along the waterway," Shafer says. "But also to reduce the risk of people drowning in the rivers."
Shafer says the restoration efforts will put a meander back into the waterways, replacing the concrete with natural stone or green space. As a result, the water will be safer due to its slower flow.
Breceda says the work being done will change how people interact with the water.
"We have a different relationship with our rivers," Breceda says. "I think people want river features, water features, people want to fish, they want to paddle some even want to swim. While that is our right — to recreate and enjoy our public resources and our natural resources — in this instance, when they're channelized, it's dangerous."
In 2015, MMSD estimated the flood risk management project would cost $80 million and require the demolition of about 83 homes and businesses near the floodplain. Restoration was expected to be completed this year.
Shafer says he hopes the Kinnickinnic River will be completely restored by 2032.