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Milwaukee Riverkeeper Flyfishing

People swimming at Milwaukee's waterfront

Kayakers on the Milwaukee River

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The Clean Water Act established federal policy for restoring our water resources with a goal of making all U.S. waters fishable and swimmable.

Cities have made progress focusing on point-source pollution, but now face the more difficult task of reducing polluted stormwater runoff from streets, parking lots, and other forms of nonpoint-source pollution. Understanding the connection between land use and water quality is critical to improving waterways.  

Milwaukee's Leadership

As Milwaukee continues to protect and clean its waterways, toxic pollutants continue to decline in the tissue of fish. Mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are the main pollutants that build up in fish in Wisconsin’s waters. Because these pollutants adversely affect human health, recommended consumption advisories are issued by health officials on how much fish may be safely eaten. The improvement of biological conditions of the water prompted the consumption advisory for salmon to increase from six to twelve times per year in 2012.

Both individuals and organizations within Milwaukee are committed to minimizing their impact to the water from nonpoint-source pollution. Businesses and neighborhoods have shown their commitment to reducing single-use plastics by committing to being Lake Friendly with Plastic Free MKE.


Milwaukee's Deep Tunnel 

MMSD Deep Tunnel Construction

In the 1980s, Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District expanded the capacity of its water reclamation facilities by building a deep tunnel to help manage combined sewer overflows and eliminate sanitary sewer overflows. 

Waterway Restoration Partnership

Milwaukee Restoration Partnership

The Waterway Restoration Partnership is a group of trusted partners in the community working together to clean up the Milwaukee Estuary so that it is no longer an Environmental Protection Agency Area of Concern. 

Smart Salting Practices

Shoveling snow

The Milwaukee River Basin Report Card identifies and measures the rivers’ health parameters and can help influence policy such as Sensible Salting, which aims to limit harmful excessive salt use in the winter. 

The Principle in Action

Balancing the man-made and natural environments in the city is challenging, but actions such as preserving riparian buffers, installing green infrastructure, and limiting the use of contaminants that can enter waterways will diminish stormwater runoff and other forms of nonpoint-source pollution. Individually, these measures might seem small, but if enough people practice them, they can significantly decrease the amount of pollution that ends up in waterways.

Menomonee Valley Naturalization

Once the center of heavy industry in the city, Milwaukee’s Menomonee River Valley is now a national model in economic development and environmental sustainability. By the late 1900s, as manufacturing practices changed, the Valley was left a blighted area with abandoned, contaminated land and vacant industrial buildings.

Now, 300 acres of former brownfields have been converted to mixed use and natural green areas thanks to the untiring efforts of the Menomonee Valley Partners. The valley now features over one million square feet of green buildings, seven miles of the Hank Aaron riverside trail, and 45 acres of native plants leading to improved wildlife habitat and water quality. 

Trail through Three Bridges Park

Three Bridges Park in Menomonee Valley (Photo Credit: Eddee Daniel)


Kinnickinnic River Naturalization

When salmon and trout leave their Lake Michigan home for a river run to spawn, some migrate through Wisconsin’s most impervious, densely-urbanized watershed. Tightly bound by residential properties, the Kinnickinnic River is lined with miles of concrete, an outdated and inadequate form of flood management that actually makes the waterway dangerous during heavy rain with powerful currents.

To improve flooding conditions and aquatic habitat, the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District will remove 12,000 linear feet of crumbling concrete and expand the channel from the current 60 feet to as much as 200 feet wide, naturalizing the Kinnickinnic River. Naturalization will make the river safer, decrease flooding, and improve biological conditions and water quality.

Kinnickinnic River Improvements at Pulaski Park

Kinnickinnic River Project at Pulaski Park


North Avenue Dam Removal

The long-lived North Avenue dam effectively divided the Milwaukee River into lower and upper sections. The upper river remained peaceful, while the lower river became heavily industrialized, its banks replaced with retaining walls and its bottom dredged to accommodate large ships.

In 2010, the City of Milwaukee created the Milwaukee River Greenway Master Plan to provide a long-term vision for the Milwaukee Rivers that would attract recreational visitors and protect and restore the unique ecological habitats along it. The City of Milwaukee therefore removed the North Avenue dam and established the Milwaukee River Overlay Zone to establish conservation and improve ecological habitats on the banks of the Milwaukee River.

Milwaukee River Greenway

Milwaukee River Greenway (Photo: Eddee Daniel)


Estabrook Dam Removal

Originally built in 1937 to elevate water levels for recreational purposes, Milwaukee’s Estabrook Dam unintentionally caused environmental consequences such as trapping sedimentation and creating fish migration barriers. After years of neglect, the dam was removed in 2018 by the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District. The removal of the dam will reverse the environmental consequences, improving water quality and habitat for fish and wildlife.

Estabrook Dam Removal

Estabrook Dam Removal (Photo: Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District)


Fisher by the Hoan Bridge


*Photo: Visit Milwaukee


Waterway Restoration Partnership

The Milwaukee Estuary became an Area of Concern under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement of 1987 because of historical modifications and pollutant loads that contributed to contaminants endangering fish consumption, water quality, and wildlife habitat. The Milwaukee Estuary includes the Milwaukee, Menomonee, and Kinnickinnic rivers, as well as Lake Michigan.

The Waterway Restoration Partnership are partners that have been working together for years to improve water quality in the area. The goal of the group is to clean up the Milwaukee Estuary so that is no longer considered an Area of Concern by the Environmental Protection Agency. Work is underway to create habitat, remove invasive plants and animals, plant vegetation, and reduce pollutants. The benefits of this work includes supporting healthier fish and wildlife and improving recreational opportunities like fishing, swimming, and boating.

MMSD Deep Tunnel

The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District's (MMSD) deep tunnel has been expanded twice since it was built in the 1980s. The tunnel system has helped reduce combined sewer overflows from an average of 50 per year to just over two per year.

Since 1994, MMSD has captured and cleaned 98.4% of all the water that has found its way into the regional sewer system, contributing greatly to the restoration of Lake Michigan. The amazing performance of the deep tunnel system has resulted in water quality improvements in the region’s rivers and has facilitated the natural revitalization of the rivers. The rivers no longer stink, and they are not trash-laden. Condos, restaurants, and bars now line this river amenity.

Limited Salt

Milwaukee Riverkeeper, a science-based advocacy nonprofit, conducts scientific research on the Milwaukee River Basin to report on water quality. Previous monitoring revealed that there is so much salt draining into Milwaukee’s rivers during the winter months that sites throughout the Milwaukee River Basin are commonly reaching chloride levels that are toxic to aquatic ecosystems from December to March. 

The monitoring effort led to the listing of four stream segments for chloride impairments. Following chloride monitoring, Milwaukee Riverkeeper was able to initiate programs that expanded its monitoring efforts and boosted community awareness of the impact of road salt application on the Milwaukee River Basin. 

Work to be Done

While the tremendous strides to lift Milwaukee out of its historic heavy industrial pollution into an inspirational fresh coast are commendable, there is work yet to be done. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources developed a Remedial Action Plan with community stakeholders to improve conditions in the Milwaukee waterways. A Community Advisory Committee represents community interests and reviews the plan, implements public support strategies, advises state and federal agencies, and provides a forum for residents and stakeholders to comment on remediation and restoration efforts.  

A Total Maximum Daily Load calculation has been created for the Greater Milwaukee watershed and sets new, smaller acceptable allowances for nonpoint source pollution. The City of Milwaukee and its many partners have responded by creating plans that increase water quality and enourage new water technologies. 

People at River Cleanup

Residents Taking Part in River Cleanup