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With Milwaukee's proximity to Lake Michigan and world-class water research, why don't we have clean water?

Project Milwaukee: The Overall Health Of Our Water

Susan Bence
WUWM is diving into the topic of clean water, or the lack thereof, in southeastern Wisconsin for our latest Project Milwaukee series.

With our proximity to Lake Michigan and world-class water research, why don't we have clean water?

WUWM is diving into the topic of clean water, or the lack there of, in southeastern Wisconsin for our Project Milwaukee Series: Great Lakes, Troubled Waters.

From the health of our drinking water, emerging threats to our waterways, the impact unclean water has on our communities and possible solutions — WUWM reporters and Lake Effect producers will work together to examine the many issues surrounding clean water.

» Emerging Threats To Our Water
» Solutions To Our Water Challenges

Do we have "clean" water?

Gov. Tony Evers has declared 2019 "the year of clean drinking water" across Wisconsin. From issues with well water to lead service lines across the state, billions of dollars would be needed to address the many infrastructure challenges facing water utilities in Wisconsin.

READ: Safe Drinking Water Is Top Priority Of Evers' State Budget

Credit Emily Files
A nurse from Children's Hospital of Wisconsin conducts a finger-prick blood test on a child at the Next Door Foundation early childhood education center. At this screening event, at least two children's tests showed elevated lead levels.

“Unfortunately, thanks to a wide variety of reasons from a wide variety of sources and a wide variety of places in this state, we currently, unfortunately, have tens of thousands of people that are no longer confident that they can turn on the tap and drink the water,” says Todd Ambs, assistant deputy secretary for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

Four key areas the DNR is examining:

  • Legacy contaminants from industrial sites
  • Lead
  • Well contamination from runoff
  • PFOS contamination — found in everything from packaging to cosmetics

While nothing like the 1993 cryptosporidium outbreak has occurred since, people are still afraid to drink from their tap — even with continued assurances from public officials in Milwaukee telling the public that we have the best water in the country.

The health of Wisconsin's water sources

While there’s not one specific study to point to that gives an overall health grading system to water resources such as Lake Michigan, the Environmental Protection Agency reports on subjects like Lakewide Action and Management Plans, habitat and land use, zooplankton levels, and Great Lakes Areas of Concern (AOCs include pollution, boundaries, and restoration).


When it comes to rivers, wetlands and smaller lakes, there is some improvement in regard to water quality. But there's also legislation that wants to deregulate the protections.

Credit Tim Fraley
The Blue River in Grant County before its restoration. Such restoration projects could be undone if EPA's proposed water rule passes.

READ:Concern Swells Around EPA's Proposed Water Protection Changes

The 2009 Great Lakes Restoration Initiative still continues to fund projects that impact the Lake Michigan drainage, wildlife habitat and water quality, as well as working on reducing contamination from rivers and floodplains.

The Milwaukee, Menomonee and Kinnickinnic rivers have long histories of pollution from industries dumping toxic waste and polluted runoff from farms and cities. While these rivers are cleaner (there was even an open swim in the Milwaukee River in 2018), ultimately, the Clean Water Act says rivers should be fishable, swimmable, and drinkable. Obviously, we're not there yet. 

READ:How Did Wisconsin's Waters Fare In 2018?

Emerging threats

Credit Marti Mikkelson
The Ulao Creek is a tributary of the Milwaukee River in Ozaukee County that contains sediments from fertilizers, phosphorus and bacteria.

One major recent concern is runoff, both from urban and agricultural areas. For example, the Ulao Creek is a tributary of the Milwaukee River in Ozaukee County. Like many other riverways in Wisconsin, there is a lack of vegetation that creates the opportunity for large amounts of sediments to alter the water.

“Sediments a huge issue in this watershed. And also kind of everything that’s bound to to the sediment. So, in a lot of cases that’s fertilizers, again, coming from ag but also maybe coming from people’s backyards. Phosphorus is a big issue in this watershed and also bacteria," says Cheryl Nenn, of the Milwaukee Riverkeeper.

» Explore More Emerging Threats To Wisconsin's Water

Audrey Nowakowski is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
LaToya was a reporter with WUWM from 2006 to 2021.
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