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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.

UWM's School of Freshwater Sciences Celebrates Its Expansion

The school has evolved since its inception in 1966. Today it is positioning itself as a crucial part of Milwaukee's global water center.

The school, located where Greenfield Avenue bumps into the inner harbor,  just unveiled its three-story addition and state-of-the-art equipment.

Fred Binkowski started rearing fish in giant tanks here, long before the UWM school took on its freshwater name in 2009. He shares what he learns about sturgeon and perch and other freshwater fish, with fellow scientists and commercial ventures – among them, Milwaukee-based Growing Power.

Binkowski complains about workers in hard hats invading his space, but not convincingly; his lab is gaining 4,000 square feet for fisheries and aquaculture.

“USDA is also going to be putting in a nutrition lab and that’ll probably be about 1,500 square feet. So, it just keeps cranking up,” Binkowski says.

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One of the school's view of the inner harbor

“We have 55 students right now; our goal is to get to 120, but we want to ramp up at the right pace," the school’s development director Eric Leaf says. "We’ve graduated only two classes so far of about a dozen each; so we have 24 alumni. We graduated our first PhD students last May."

In earlier decades, only researchers worked here. Now its mission is to cultivate interdisciplinary collaboration and draw students in fields ranging from microbiology to robotics.

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Scientists were just moving into new labs.

While leading a tour, Leaf points to a lab where scientists will study the impacts of mercury.

“What they do is expose a mother zebra fish, a low exposure but consistent with what a about 20 percent of the American female population is exposed to. It’s chronic long term exposure; and then we take that female and we breed it,” Leaf says.

The lab will monitor the offspring – in order to gauge possible human impacts.

Leaf says a number of the school’s labs will be off limits.

“It’s essentially a bio-secure level three facility, plus a pathogen-inducement lab and the combination allow us to do some research that nobody else – well at least in the country – other than University of Washington. They have a similar facility, but they’re focused primarily on marine systems and we do fresh water,” Leaf says.

While most attention is focused on the new labs and classrooms – it cost $53 million to build them, architect Jim Wasley is captivated by the school’s location on the inner harbor.

“Architects are interested in lots of different environmental issues, but once I started getting interested in water – and architects are interested in water because water falls on buildings - it just led me out into the landscape,” Wasley says.

Over the last three years, Wasley tasked himself, and his UWM students to design creative ways to handle rain; to slow and cleanse it, before it seeps back into Lake Michigan.

Some of their ideas will soon come to life. Storm water fountains will line Greenfield Avenue; a rain garden will be in front of the school. Wasley says a stainless steel channel will feed the garden, with rain water collected on a green roof.

“It will cross the road and dump water from 15 feet high into a stone and rain garden like pond in the center of the circle drive,” Wasley says.

 There’s a more modest version of the system on UWM’s Kenwood campus.

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Jim Wasley stands at the spot onto which water would cascade.

“Where at the campus we capture 13,000 square feet and it’s a good flow of water, here it would be more like 40,000 square feet and it would be a torrent of water,” Wasley says.

And Wasley says, with the new system, people might not have to wait for rain, to watch the spectacle.

Remember the huge tanks that scientist Fred Binkowski uses to rear fish? Right now, the city water used in the tanks is de-chlorinated, passes once through its system and heads directly to the harbor.

Wasley says the water could cycle through the wetland system - up to 600 gallons a minute.

“So we pump it up to the roof and let it drain through the roof system, getting it into the drainage system, so that it would feed into the sluice and we’d have a fountain at the end of the street, fed with aquaculture processed water,” Wasley says.

On Saturday, the School of Freshwater Sciences is holding a public open house.

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Eric Leaf (far left) introduces tour group to school's research vessel.

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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