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Researches on a boat on Lake Michigan

Researcher in the lab

UWM School of Freshwater Sciences Building

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Many regions face a host of water problems, from new sources of chemical contamination by pharmaceuticals and personal care products, to invasive species and exotic pathogens, to combined sewer overflows, ground water overdraws, and water scarcity.

Water professionals recognize that to advance our understanding of these complex issues a multi-disciplinary and multi-organizational approach is needed.

Milwaukee's Leadership

The City of Milwaukee is fortunate to have several key academic institutions, water research, and talent-development programs such as the Marquette University Water Law and Policy Center and the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee’s School of Freshwater Sciences.

The City of Milwaukee is using water research to enact innovative policy change. The City's continued efforts for applying water research and policy are illustrated through its relationships with a variety of water-related companies, non-profits, and entrepreneurs. The City of Milwaukee Environmental Collaboration Office has also provided internship opportunities to students from both Marquette University and UWM’s School of Freshwater Sciences to strengthen the relationship between research and policy. 


Drug Disposal & Collection Program

Woman returning medicines to a drop off box

Research on pharmaceuticals revealed the negative effects on fish, motivating the City to create a program for the proper disposal of unused medications. 

Milwaukee Beach Cleanup

People on the beach
Studies found multiple sources of water contamination at Milwaukee beaches, leading to the adoption of mitigation measures to stop the problem at its source.

Milwaukee Coal-Tar Pavement Ban

Coal Tar Pavement Application
Research surrounding polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) polluted waterways brought about banning coal-tar pavement sealants throughout the City of Milwaukee.

The Principle In Action

Sustainable water policy requires a foundation based in science, research, and social science. Ignoring the physical limits of our ecosystems and the ability of water supplies to replenish themselves will harm the long-term economies of cities and their residents.

Governments serve their residents when they seek to apply the best available data from academic institutions to inform water policy.

School of Freshwater Sciences

The University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee’s School of Freshwater Sciences is the only graduate program of its kind in the country dedicated to the study of freshwater resources. The University’s research is quickly developing water technologies, making life in Milwaukee more convenient, connected, and safe. Research at UWM extends beyond the natural sciences and includes truly interdisciplinary research, such as the Reimagining Water report about linking sustainable urban water systems in the Great Lakes basin. 

Established in 2011, the University's Center for Water Policy provides world-class interdisciplinary solutions to resolve regional, national, and international problems related to the protection, restoration, and conservation of freshwater resources to ensure long-term environmental health and quality of life.


UWM Neeskay Research Vessel, the only year-round research vessel on the Great Lakes


Freshwater Collaborative of Wisconsin

The Freshwater Collaborative of Wisconsin works to fill the demand for a water workforce through explicit structuring of curriculum, training, and workplace experience to solve global water resource problems through collaborative research across the natural science, engineering, social science, economics, and policy arenas. The Collaborative is a partnership of Wisconsin’s 13 public universities working to:

  • Provide UW System-wide programs, internships, and research opportunities that teach students real-world skills 
  • Create a workforce of talented water professionals trained to meet the water challenges of the future 
  • Fund innovative, collaborative research to solve Wisconsin’s 10 Grand Water Challenges 
  • Engage industry partners, local communities, policymakers and advocacy groups in the effort to support career opportunities in fresh water 

Researcher working in the lab

Water researcher analyzing samples


Sweet Water

Southeastern Wisconsin Watersheds Trust, Inc., referred to as Sweet Water, is a Milwaukee non-profit that collaborates with diverse stakeholders in efforts to secure healthy and sustainable water resources in the Greater Milwaukee watersheds. Sweet Water convenes a Science Advisory Committee and a Policy Advisory Committee to advise stakeholders in important science and policy issues pertaining to watershed restoration goals in the Milwaukee River Basin, and to propose policy recommendations.

Each committee is comprised of volunteers from a wide range of interests and professional expertise from across the region. All of their work is based on sound science, taking a watershed approach that bridges jurisdictional and social boundaries and recognizes the way land management impacts our shared water resources.

View of the river

View of the River  (Photo: Sweet Water)

Researchers on the UWM Neeskay vessels monitoring the water


Protecting the Health & Safety of Residents

UWM sudents have developed a buoy that transmits minute-by-minute information about water quality conditions. This technology is shortening the time to issue water-quality warnings. Normally, health officials receive information about poor water quality condition much later, leading to beach closings the day after a threat develops. 

Improving Water Quality 

Swimming at beaches with poor water quality can make people ill. Beaches with contamination are closed to keep people safe. In 1999, the City of Milwaukee received a grant from the EPA to increase the monitoring of recreational beaches to protect people from swimming in contaminated water. While the nearly daily monitoring revealed that some Milwaukee beaches were contaminated, they did not reveal the source of the contamination.

Understanding the source of contamination is critical to improve water quality. Researchers from the UWM School of Freshwater Sciences found multiple sources of contamination, which led to solutions in the form of mitigation tactics. Stormwater outfalls were relocated, green infrastructure was added to prevent runoff from entering the beach, and educational signage displaying messages such as “Please Do Not Feed the Birds” was implemented, as it was found that fecal pollution from bird waste was a large contaminate.

Preserving Aquatic Life 

An emerging area of research for aquatic contamination is the study of pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs). Pharmaceuticals used to treat or prevent disease and personal care products used to improve the quality of daily life, such as moisturizers and shampoos, are being found in freshwater systems worldwide due to landfill leaching and wastewater treatment facilities. Wastewater treatment facilities are not designed to remove all PPCPs.

The effects of many PPCPs on aquatic life is still relatively unknown. A study conducted at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s School of Freshwater Sciences revealed that metformin, a commonly prescribed diabetes medication, has been shown to cause intersex in fish—a male fish that produces eggs. This research has motivated the City of Milwaukee to create a Medical Disposal and Collection Program, which encourages residents to properly dispose of unused, unwanted, or old medications to protect the environment. 

Work to be Done

As a result of multi-disciplinary and multi-organizational collaboration, the City of Milwaukee has made great improvements toward applied water research and policy. This momentum must continue in order for the City to solve other water-related problems such as lead service lines and other water contaminants.

Additionally, Milwaukee understands the need to assess the social-environmental impact of water research and policy, and will continue to work toward that by applying and integrating academic knowledge with policy and community activity; promoting academic and commercial research that is nonpartisan, nonproprietary, publicly available, and oriented to inform policy; and by using tools that assess economic, societal, and environmental impact of applied research and policy.

Research boat on Lake Michigan

UWM research vessel on Lake Michigan