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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.

Habitat Restoration Afoot in Milwaukee Inner Harbor

Milwaukee's Inner Harbor was once home to 10,000 acres of wetland. Today, just a minuscule remnant remains and it is slated for restoration. 

A researcher at the UWM School of Freshwater Sciences, John Jannsen, stumbled upon the wetland. He wasn’t looking to make a discovery. He just wanted some lunch and stopped in at Barnacle Bud’s on the Kinnickinnic River.

Janssen took in the industrial surroundings when his gaze locked on a spot to the southeast. He spotted “a lot of wet-tolerant trees out in that area.” He tramped over to look to what appeared to be a bit of wetland.

Long ago, before European settlers showed up and industrialization commenced, 10,000 watery acres existed here. The river systems used to form a marshy maze, brimming with wild rice and fed into Lake Michigan.

Janssen thought, “this could be an interesting project to restore a wetland, but I didn’t have time to get involved with it.”

So he dismissed it and returned to his own work, until he attended a Great Lakes restoration meeting in Chicago.

“One of the keynote speakers said one of the sad things about the Great Lakes is you can’t restore a river mouth wetland area because it’s all been turned into industrial stuff; they’re harbors,” Janssen says. “And that’s when I realized that maybe we had just the patch of the original Milwaukee estuary that was over there – probably disturbed – but nevertheless it’s sort of a patch. So I started to take it a little more seriously.”

So, he set some of his students loose on the project. They discovered native cattails and wildlife – including Garter snakes and owls that have not disappeared despite harsh conditions.

“Before we knew it, there was a grant to try to get more serious design; it’s right now in the hands of City Hall and there’s a design on paper,” Janssen says.

The City of Milwaukee has since named the 6.5 acres the Bay View Wetland.

Design has not yet moved from paper to shovel, so it takes imagination to see its potential. Not for Janssen, he sees beyond the invasive grass and willows that must go.

“It will be a marshy area, like it wants to be," Janssen says. "It’ll be a place for fish to spawn and birds, even more birds, to spend time during migration or spend time and forage.”

Credit S Bence
Close up of Mike Marek's floating island along northern edge of School of Freshwater Sciences boat slip.

Northeast of the wetland, Milwaukee landscaper and ecologist Mike Marek has created a man-made habitat at the doorstep of the School of Freshwater Sciences.

Marek’s synthetic floating islands are made of up modules pieced together to create 80 feet long and six feet wide vegetative mats.

Plant plug holes are drilled into the floating nontoxic, recycled material. The roots of the plants attached to the island form a dense mass.

Not only does the root system pull pollutants out of the water, Marek says the fish find "shelter and hide from predation under there.”

Credit S Bence
A female mallard hoists herself onto the island and starts preening herself. Two more ducks follow suit.

As soon as Marek installed one island, three species of frogs hopped aboard. Even when he shifted the mass from one end of the channel to the other, the frogs all stayed right with it.

Marek envisions the Milwaukee Inner Harbor interspersed with islands viewable by boardwalks and kayaks yet out of the way of commercial vessels.

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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