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A Special WUWM News SeriesThe Milwaukee River allowed commerce and industry to thrive during the city's formative years and provided recreation. However, disregard for the river's health led to decades of decay.WUWM News explores recent developments to rejuvenate the Milwaukee River and their success at drawing people back to the city's historic arterial.

One Step Closer to Sweet Water Goal

A few months ago WUWM News met three Milwaukee entrepreneurs who set their sights high. They hope to create a commercial aquaculture business in an old factory building in Bay View. The idea is to raise, and then sell, thousands of fish, using a natural filtering system that grows edible plants along the way. WUWM’s environmental reporter Susan Bence visited Sweet Water Organics to see how the business is coming along.

This is a space transformed.
A few months ago the old warehouse was dark and dank. Now windows high above our heads cast light on pieces of original art - paintings of fish and plants, and there’s a hum of life in the air. Sweet Water Organics is bringing together the movers and shakers of Milwaukee’s aquaculture scene. One player is the urban farm, Growing Power. Its team has given the entrepreneurs guidance and encouragement.

Rick Mueller is here, quietly scoping out the place.

“I’m the aquaponics expert at Growing Power,” Mueller says.

He’s raised fish for years. “I’m the ultimate behind the scenes person,” Mueller says.

“Would this be an exact replica of what you do at Growing Power,” I ask.

“Actually I haven’t had a chance to examine it,” Mueller says.

We’re surrounded by the sound of water circulating through four systems that fill the east end of the old factory.

“What we’re looking at are four raceways. Probably gallon-wise they’re between 8 thousand and 15 thousand gallons each,” Mueller says.

Pretty soon fish will arrive to fill one of those tanks. On each, there’s a pump that drives the water up from the tank to tiers of plants above. Pea gravel lines the large trays.

“That’s the filter medium. So the water comes up to the plant beds and it races across the plant beds over the filter medium. That purifies the water and then it drops back down into the raceway,” Mueller says.

Mueller calls that the recirculation part of the equation. Then there’s the bounty.

“You’re raising the fish, but at the same time, you’re getting several harvests off the plants you grow above the fish troughs,” Mueller says.

Mueller says watercress is a popular plant choice. So far plants have been the only growing thing at Sweet Water Organics; until today. The first batch of fish is expected any minute. Nobody should be more excited than Steve Lindner, one of the company’s three owners, but mostly he looks tired.

“We did a lot of the labor ourselves because money became an issue. We spent more than we anticipated,” Lindner says.

“Perch are coming in today or tilapia,” I ask.

“Perch are coming in today. Oh, here comes Great Lakes,” Lindner says.

That means Fred Binkowski of the Great Lakes WATER Institute. It’s the other force helping launch the Sweet Water operation. The freshwater fish researcher and his students have arrived bearing perch in big plastic barrels. Each little fish weighs just under an ounce.

“We’re only bringing over a small number of fish, about a thousand fish, maybe a little bit more, 1200 fish, as the measuring stick, to determine what this system is going to be able to handle, so we’re not jumping into this head first without knowing what we’re going to be faced with,” Binkowski says.

With that, Binkowski says it’s time to dump the tubs.

“Godsil put your camera down for a second and you and Steve and Josh dump the first two tubs together,” Binkowski says.

All three business partners step forward. It’s an emotional moment. They’ve been working toward this day for months. Godsil, the one who loves to take photos, is almost moved to tears.

Perch being introduced to their new home.

“Oh wow, aren’t they beautiful,” Godsil says.

Godsil’s not the only one who can’t keep his eyes off the perch.

Fred Binkowski and his team have raised these lively 6-month-old fish and will continue monitoring how they adapt to their new home, adding more perch when the time is right. And the connection won’t stop there.

“We’ll be involved by collecting data on the production and also cost information. Because we’re interested in also finding out how much does it actually cost to do something like this for a business plan,” Binkowski says.

Binkowski says determining the start-up costs could lead to a business model that can be replicated. He tells the three owners of Sweet Water, call me anytime.

“And training, we still need to do some of that with you guys,” Binkowski says.

All the experts gathered here say you never stop learning how to nurture fish. But based on Fred Binkowski’s calculations, Sweet Water Organics should be ready to throw its first fish fry by the middle of January.

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.