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Milwaukee River Basin Gets C- On Its Report Card


The health of Milwaukee’s rivers is improving, slightly, according to the 3rd annual report card from the Milwaukee Riverkeeper group.

It ranked the basin at C- in 2012 ; compared to D+ the year before. Cheryl Nenn with Milwaukee Riverkeeper says the basins' baby step improvement likely results from an extremely dry summer, rather than human effort.

Trained citizen volunteers troll the Milwaukee, Menomonee and Kinnickinnic watersheds from May through October.  Nenn says Milwaukee Riverkeeper came up with the report card to better inform the public and influence public policy.

“We decided we had to do a much better job of actually disseminating that information to the public and try to make it understandable – what we’re finding in the river – what the river’s telling us and what they can do to help us get to where we want to be which is a clean, fishable, swimmable river,” Nenn says.

Highlights of 2012’s report card include:

  • The Milwaukee River Watershed is holding steady with a C grade.
  • The grade for the Menomonee River Watershed remained at a dismal D in 2012, which was the same as the 2011 grade.
  • The Kinnickinnic (KK) River grade improved to a C- in 2012 from a D- grade in 2011.
  • We are making good progress cleaning up legacy contamination (largely from old industrial use).
  • More than 1/3 of our stormwater outfall samples (where the storm sewer dumps directly into the stream discharging rain or snow melt) contain medium to high amounts of human bacteria, which indicates failing infrastructure.
Much of the urbanized portions of the basin earn chronically low water quality marks.  This map shows the affected areas in the Milwaukee River watershed.

The report points to chronic water quality impairment thanks in part to remnants of legacy contaminants released before the Clean Water Act was crafted.

There is a program afoot to go after some of the pollutants being discharged within the Milwaukee River watershed. Nenn says it’s called TMDL.

“It means Total Maximum Daily Load. It's a federally approved plan that’s binding by law. We’re not meeting standards for phosphorus, for bacteria, and we’re not meeting standards for sediment. As part of that effort, we’ve been able to target where there needs pollutant reductions in different portions of the river to meet these standards. So entities that discharge pollutants into the river, whether it’s a municipality or a company, are going to get new limits put into their (wastewater) permits eventually that will help us ratchet this pollution down. So, over time, we’ll be able to focus our money and our efforts,” Nenn says.

Nenn says a draft plan has been written. It will require state and federal approval before its impacts will be felt.

In the meantime, organizations such as River Revitalization Foundation, or RRF, are busy remediating portions of the river basin, including a community-driven effort to create 878 acres of trails and restored habitat just north of downtown Milwaukee – called the Milwaukee River Greenway. RRF executive director Kimberly Gleffe says the project is going to stretch out for decades, but Gleffe already feels its cumulative effects.

Aaron Zeleske and Kimberly Gleffe with River Revitalization Foundation are part of a collection of organizations and neighbors piecing together the Milwaukee River Greenway

“Every improvement that we make in the river valley will improve water quality; so I think Riverkeeper’s report card and River Revitalization Foundation’s land restoration, habitat restoration and shoreline restoration is only going to enhance habitat and improve the water quality of the river,” Gleffe says.

RRF’s most recent tangible step is a one-mile stretch of path.

“We received an easement from Milwaukee Area Technical College where their solar farm is. It’s on the west bank from Capitol one mile north up to Estabrook Boulevard. Once we had the easement recorded, then we had to do a trail design and get the permit from the DNR and then we went in with Student Conservation Association and volunteers and went in physically construct the trail,” Gleffe says.

Conservation biologist Gary Casper is working to regenerate wildlife hard hit before the river’s revitalization. Casper specializes in amphibians and reptiles. He started taking inventory of snakes on the Milwaukee River over six years ago, but says he’s learned a lot since.

“There are only three species which is not good; there should be more. Water snakes have disappeared from the river way, but potentially could be brought back,” Casper says.

Snakes, of course, are just one piece of the ecological puzzle Casper looks at from two endpoints – what did habitat look like before Milwaukee became Milwaukee and compare it to what’s left today, with an eye toward creating a habitat plan.

“The frog community went from eight species pre-settlement to two today; salamanders went from four species pre-settlement to none today. So those are organisms we could reestablish,” Casper says.

The scientist says wetlands – necessary for salamanders to breed – could be reestablished, but would require substantial community buy-in, time and money

It makes you wonder, what kind of impact Casper’s vision would have on a future report card.

Conservation biologist Gary Casper has conducted amphibian and reptile surveys throughout the basin.

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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.