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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 tremendous progress in this by 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.  


Balancing the man-made and natural environments in the city is challenging. But by taking actions such as preserving riparian buffers, installing green infrastructure, and limiting use of contaminants that can enter waterways, stormwater runoff and other forms of nonpoint-source pollution will diminish. 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. Both individuals and organizations within Milwaukee are committed to minimizing their impact to the water. For example, numerous Milwaukee businesses have shown their commitment to reducing single-use plastics by signing the Plastic Free MKE pledge.






Waterway Restoration Partnership

The Milwaukee Estuary became an Area of Concern under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement of 1987 because of historical contamination that endangered 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 is a group of long-standing, trusted partners in the community who 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 include supporting healthier fish and wildlife, and improving recreational opportunities like fishing, swimming, and boating.1

Limited Salt

Milwaukee Riverkeeper, a science-based advocacy nonprofit, conducts scientific research on the Milwaukee River Basin to report on water quality. The annual report, named 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 the harmful excessive salt use in the winter. Previous monitoring conducted by the Milwaukee Riverkeeper 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.2 This 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 their monitoring efforts and also boosted community awareness of the impact that road salt application has on the Milwaukee River Basin. 

Naturalizing the Menomonee Valley

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.3 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. 

MMSD Deep Tunnel

In the 1980’s, Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District expanded the capacity of its water reclamation facilities by building a deep tunnel to help manage combined sewer overflows (CSOs) and to eliminate sanitary sewer overflows. Expanded twice since, this tunnel system has helped reduce CSOs from an average of 50 per year to an average of 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. This contributed 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.4

Naturalize Kinnickinnic River

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. This naturalization will make the river safer, decrease flooding, and improve biological conditions and water quality.

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, Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, City of Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, and Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District Executive Director Kevin Shafer announced a plan to remove the Estabrook Dam. The removal of the dam will reverse the environmental consequences, improving water quality and habitat for fish and wildlife.

North Avenue Dam Removal

The long-lived North Avenue dam effectively divided the Milwaukee river into a lower and an upper river. 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.

Decreased Consumption Advisories

Mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are the main pollutants that build up in fish from Wisconsin’s waters.5 Because these pollutants adversely affect human health, recommended consumption advisories are issued by health officials on how much fish may be safely eaten. As Milwaukee continues to protect and clean its waterways, toxic pollutants continue to decline in the tissue of fish. 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.


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. Milwaukee, like other urban cities, suffers from lingering water pollution, and is challenged with non-point source pollution such as stormwater runoff.

The Milwaukee Estuary was designated as an Area of Concern (AOC) because of historical modifications and pollutant loads that contributed toxic contaminants to Lake Michigan. The DNR developed a Remedial Action Plan with community stakeholders to improve conditions in the AOC. The most recent update of the report was published in 2017.  In 2016, efforts to eliminate the AOC designation included moving sediment remediation forward, completing assessments to gather information on Beneficial Use Impairment (BUI) status and support decision making, and continuing to make progress on habitat restoration management actions.

The Community Advisory Committee (CAC) represents community interests in the AOC. The CAC reviews the Remedial Action Plan, assists with BUI removal, implements public support strategies, advises state and federal agencies, and provides a forum for residents and stakeholders to comment on remediation and restoration efforts.  

Understanding the severity of non-point source pollution, a TMDL (total maximum daily load) calculation has been created for the Greater Milwaukee Watershed (consisting of the Menomonee, Kinnickinnic, and Milwaukee River Watersheds and the Milwaukee Harbor Estuary). The TMDL will set new smaller acceptable allowances for non-point source pollution. The City of Milwaukee and its many partners have responded by creating plans that increase water quality and encourage new water technologies.



Cited Sources:

1. (Waterway Restoration Partnership)

2. (Milwaukee Riverkeeper)

3. (Menominee Valley Partners)

4. (Revitalization News)


5. (DNR)

6. (DNR)