DNR Floats Plan to Create A Cleaner Milwaukee River Basin

Jul 26, 2016

The Milwaukee River basin is markedly cleaner than a few decades ago. The heavy industries that used to pour toxins into the water have closed or are now regulated, and the deep tunnel system has dramatically reduced storm water overflows into the river. But challenges remain.

Friday the Wisconsin DNR released a plan in draft form to remove more pollutants from the basin, which consists of the Milwaukee, Menomonee and Kinnickinnic Rivers' watersheds as well as the Milwaukee Harbor estuary.

The highly technical plan is also a mouthful - Total Maximum Daily Loads, or TMDL

A public information meeting held Monday in Wauwatosa.
Credit Susan Bence

“[The plan] sets the amount pollutants a water body can receive and still meet water quality standards,” says Kevin Kirsch, water resource engineer with the Wisconsin DNR.

He says the Clean Water Act represents the underpinnings of the Milwaukee River basin plan.

The federal law demands that waters be swimmable and fishable. But areas of the basin – its rivers and estuary – remain impaired.

READ: Citizens Claim Wisconsin Not Complying With Clean Water Act, Demand EPA Action

Decades agricultural runoff, urban stormwater, industrial discharges and wastewater have polluted the basin. Kirsch describes the level of pollution as:

“Data collected in 2104 by MMSD, WDNR, and Milwaukee Riverkeeper staff showed that out of the 450 samples analyzed for phosphorus, only 43% were meeting the water quality standard. Of the 435 samples evaluating turbidity and suspended sediment 68% were meeting water quality standards and of the 238 samples evaluating bacteria, 50% were meeting standards.”

Milwaukee River Basin includes the Milwaukee, Menomonee and Kinnickinnic River watersheds and the estuary.
Credit CDM Smith

He says the DNR's  strategy aims to remove the impaired status by reducing phosphorus, bacteria, sediment and total suspended solids, or TSS.

“The fine particles that would stay in suspension in the water column and kind of give it that chocolate milk kind of look during a storm event. And then the sediment is the larger particles that would settle out and kind of fill up the channel and smother habitat,” he says.

Kirsch says sediment and TSS can also absorb other pollutants. “So by controlling that pollutant, we’re also getting a lot of other pollutants, metals, stuff like that,” he says.

The plan zeroes in on nonpoint pollution – the kind that flows off surfaces – from upstream farm fields to urbanized parking lots into Milwaukee’s rivers and ultimately Lake Michigan.

Kirsch says agriculture falls under a special category within the TMDL plan. “It’s a little nuanced with agriculture," he explains. "We do have as performance standard agriculture, just like we have for the urban areas – for both storm water, agriculture and urban. I think where the nuance comes in, is there is a statutory requirement in Wisconsin that it is not a requirement unless cost share money is made available to the producers."

The Kinnickinnic River - one of three that form the Milwaukee River Basin.
Credit S Bence

In other words, the plan would be voluntary for farmers, unless for example, they teamed up with municipalities to subsidize farm-based, pollutant-curbing projects.

It’s part of the implementation strategy. There are lots of different programs available," Kirsch says.

The EPA will have the ultimate say on the Milwaukee River basin plan. However, Kirsch says it won’t be ready for weeks.

The DNR still plans to meet with stakeholders to confer separately with industry, municipalities and farms; then the public will be able to comment.

We’ll be following the process and how it could affect different inhabitants of the basin.