Milwaukee Riverkeeper

Susan Bence

Milwaukee’s rivers have slowly been revitalized through a variety of cleanup projects in recent years. But, the estuary — the area in which the Milwaukee, Menomonee and Kinnickinnic Rivers meet Lake Michigan — is still one of the most environmentally degraded sites on the Great Lakes due to contamination caused by decades of industrial waste.

The estuary has a federal designation as an “area of concern.”

But change is coming. Years of planning has led to a massive $400 million cleanup project.

Courtesy of David Thomas

One day a year for the last 24 years, several thousand volunteers have spread out throughout the Milwaukee River Basin to pick up trash. But this year is different, the coronavirus forced the Milwaukee Riverkeeper organization to cancel its 25th cleanup.

The science-based, water advocacy group says the annual cleaning up of tons of trash that accumulates over the winter helps the Menomonee, Kinnickinnic and Milwaukee River watersheds, but it also helps connect people to the natural resource.

Susan Bence / Milwaukee Public Radio

Mussels may not be the first creature that comes to mind when you think about a healthy watershed. But unlike the invasive quagga and zebra mussels that have turned the Great Lakes ecosystem upside down, native freshwater varieties fill an important niche.

Susan Bence

Milwaukee Riverkeeper describes itself as “a science based advocacy organization working for swimmable, fishable rivers.” Unfortunately, the Milwaukee River Basin, which includes the Kinnickinnic, Menomonee, and Milwaukee Rivers and their tributaries, has some work to do before reaching that swimmable, fishable goal.

For the past decade, Riverkeeper has dispatched dozens of citizen scientists to monitor water quality in nearly 100 spots throughout the basin.