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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Advocates Say Milwaukee's Closer To Estuary Cleanup Despite Remaining Work And Contaminated Sediment

Susan Bence
One area in need of remediation is a 6-river-mile stretch in and along the Milwaukee River from the former Estabrook Dam to the river's confluence with the Menomonee River.

Milwaukee prides itself for being a water centric city, but it has a problem with its water quality. In 1987, Milwaukee was one of 43 areas around the Great Lakes put on a list no one wants to be on — the Areas of Concern list.

That’s what the EPA calls the places around the basin where pollution hangs on often decades after industry, agricultural and other sources compromise water quality. That means you wouldn’t want to swim, fish or drink directly out of them.

In Milwaukee, the brunt of the contamination was found along the lower stretches of the Milwaukee, Kinnickinnic and Menomonee rivers and where they meet in Milwaukee’s inner and outer harbor; and finally the nearshore waters of Lake Michigan.

Credit US EPA Great Lakes National Program Office
Map created in 2019 as part of the feasibility study for the Menomonee River and Milwaukee River project site within Milwaukee Estuary AOC.

Progress has been made, including the removal of the Estabrook Dam upstream on the Milwaukee River, but lots more is needed. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources announced this week nearly $30 million in funding to help plan for more clean up.

Brennan Dow, Milwaukee Area Of Concern Coordinator with the DNR, says soon crews will get to work along a stretch of the Milwaukee River near North Avenue.

Credit Susan Bence
Eastabrook Dam was a Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps that fell into disrepair. It was removed in 2019.

“Figuring out where more samples will need to be taken, figuring out how much volume of soil will have to be removed from the floodplain to address contamination. But this section of the river has articulated concrete mat that has been lying on the river since before the North Avenue dam was removed,” Dow says.

Dow says the DNR and EPA, along with the help of consultants, will determine if contaminants lurk under the concrete — and if they do, what to do about it.

The new $30 million infusion – 65% from the EPA, the remainder from state and local sources — will pay for creating a plan. One that Dow hopes leads to the EPA awarding as many dollars as possible for actual clean up.

Credit Susan Bence
A few of the people/organizations working to remove Milwaukee estuary from the Area Of Concern list include (from left) Natalie Dutack, program supervisor for Milwaukee County Parks-related AOC projects ; Sarah Toomsen, Milwaukee County Parks; Aaron Zeleske, Harbor District, Inc; Brennan Dow, Wisconsin DNR's Milwaukee AOC coordinator; Jen Francis, Milwaukee County Parks.

Programs around the Great Lakes compete for every dollar.

“Areas of Concern usually get the larger piece of the pie, which is around $90 million a year roughly. However, they must distribute that money throughout the entire Great Lakes,” Dow says.

Milwaukee County Parks also plays a role in Milwaukee’s AOC work. The system is strapped for funds but owns much of the land adjacent to waterways that need cleaning up.

County Parks Deputy Director Jen Francis thinks as people learn more, the process will be demystified.

“You hear the word AOC and it doesn’t feel very approachable. But this is a monumental time where we have an opportunity to make change in improving the health of our waterways for future generations — and it’s real,” Francis says.

Credit US EPA Great Lakes National Program Office
During Lincoln Park's two-phase cleanup, 13,000 dump truck loads of contaminated materials were removed.

Sarah Toomsen, Milwaukee County Parks manager of planning and development, wants to show off a stretch upstream along Lincoln Park that’s already been remediated.

“This was within an active park. We had the relatively new Schulz Aquatic Center, playgrounds, active baseball field. The park was able to be used. We were able to focus and work carefully with our partners on how to successfully do the remediation. And we’re hoping to take some of those lessons learned as we work through the other areas of the AOC,” Toomsen says.

Brennan Dow with the DNR says crews hauled 13,000 dump truck loads of contaminated materials out of Lincoln Park in the process. Far more is likely to be removed downstream in the next Milwaukee River remediation phase. Dow says that’s nothing good planning and funding can’t handle.

There are more facets to creating a fishable swimmable estuary – including nurturing habitat for fish and wildlife. Dow looks forward to making those projects happen.

“Being able to provide more of that shoreline habitat for fish and other type of species like turtles and so forth,” he says.

If you are feeling confused, inspired or a little of both, the community group Milwaukee Blue Crew shares information and updates on the Milwaukee Estuary Area of Concern.

Have an environmental question you'd like WUWM's Susan Bence to investigate? Submit below.


Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.
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