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THE WATER CURRENT TOUR

A Water Centric City Interactive Walking Tour

Stakeholders of the Water Current Tour at the Ribbon Cutting

Sharing Milwaukee's Water Story

Milwaukee is defined by water. Native communities settled here because of it, our history was shaped by it, and our future depends on it. At the confluence of three great rivers pouring into the largest freshwater resource on the planet, we’re not just the MidwestWe’re a coastal city on America’s Fresh Coast.

It’s more than just proximity to these resources that makes our city special. Many cities are lucky enough to find themselves positioned along the Great Lakes or even a great river, but Milwaukee is rising to the occasion in a novel way. We’re a Water Centric City filled with passionate leaders and innovative thinkers working to protect our shared watershed and communities.

We have a collective water story worth sharing, and the Water Current Tour is our way to share it with the public.

What You'll Find

The Water Current Tour includes signage and artwork created in partnership with Arts @ Large that showcases and educates the community and visitors on Milwaukee’s efforts to improve water quality, preserve, protect, and restore water resources, and develop innovative water technologies. Water-themed visual cues connect existing water assets, build Milwaukee's identity and sense of place around fresh water, and strengthen support for continued investments in environmental protection, water-related infrastructure, and water-related businesses.

Water Education Signs

Water Education Sign

Learn about water science, Milwaukee history, and local attractions

Public Artwork

Artwork of water droplet on sidewalk

Admire Artist Marina Lee's water mandalas and linking footprints

Eco-Arts Park

People painting a water-themed mandala artwork at the Paliafito Arts Park

Enjoy Arts @ Large programming and public art in the Paliafito Eco-Arts Park

Wayfaring Signs

Water Tour Wayfaring Sign

Discover water-based locations and organizations across Milwaukee

 

Where to Find the Tour

The tour aims to draw visitors from Downtown Milwaukee and the Historic Third Ward to locations throughout Walker’s Point, along the Water Technology District and into the Harbor District. Participants are directed to Milwaukee’s various water-related assets, including the Global Water Center, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Freshwater Sciences and Harbor View Plaza. Use the Water Current Tour Map to plan your route.

Image of Milwaukee Water Current Tour Map

DOWNLOAD THE WATER TOUR MAP

THE HARLEY-DAVIDSON MUSEUM

Location: 400 W. Canal St.

Find the sign along the river on the southeast end of the Hank Aaron State Trail, near the orange water tower.

Harley-Davidson motorcycle riders on bikes

Harley-Davidson Motorcycle Riders

 

 

Aerial View of the Harley-Davidson Museum from Above

Aerial View of the Harley-Davidson Museum 

(Photo: Visit Milwaukee)

 

People walking on the Harley-Davidson Museum RiverWalk along plants

The RiverWalk along the Harley-Davidson Museum

Harley History

Harley-Davidson Motorcycles are revered throughout America and the world, and they established Milwaukee as one of the first American motorcycle cities.

The culture of innovation at Harley-Davidson has resulted in a thriving business and devoted following for over 120 years, and that same drive for innovation was used in planning for an eco-friendly Harley-Davidson Museum in 2006.

Brownfield Remediation

The museum was built on the easternmost of the Menomonee River Valley properties, situated on the Menomonee River. The location was an industrial brownfield site found to have high chloride levels and trace levels of metals in the soil and groundwater.

Harley-Davidson worked with its developers, the City of Milwaukee, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, and Menomonee Valley Partners to restore the land to safe use by taking 79,000 cubic yards of clean soil from the Marquette Interchange project and using it to raise the museum site level above the flood plain and cap the contaminated soil.

Harley-Davidson also used recycled and crushed asphalt and concrete to make the road bases and fill in other sections of the property, and repaired the dock wall around the site to prevent erosion into the Menomonee River. Using these materials and adding sustainable building features saved time, money, and energy, and displayed significant upcycle opportunities.

The developers implemented other unique ideas to make the Harley-Davidson Museum sustainable and eco-friendly, such as:

  • Using native plants along the Milwaukee RiverWalk to allow for natural filtering of stormwater runoff.
  • Designing the parking lot with permeable pavement to capture and filter stormwater to avoid flooding.
  • Adding electric vehicle charging stations.
  • Selecting roofs and roadways covered with white or light colored, reflective surfaces to reduce heat absorption and retention, otherwise known as the heat island effect.

Water Access

The site of the Harley-Davidson Museum adds additional eco-friendly elements by connecting visitors to the Hank Aaron State Trail, and providing access to the Milwaukee Urban Water Trail.

The Hank Aaron State Trail is a 14-mile paved continuous east-to-west connection from the shores of Lake Michigan to the Milwaukee/Waukesha county line. It covers a variety of environments ranging from urban, to river views, to prairie and wooded surroundings.

The Milwaukee Urban Water Trail, designed by Milwaukee Riverkeeper, links people to places both natural and human-made, connects past to present, and give boaters a unique perspective on rivers, lakes, and the surrounding land. These connections provide “a sense of place” within our watersheds and bring us together as a community.

ROCKWELL AUTOMATION HEADQUARTERS

Location: 1201 S. 2nd St.

Find the sign on the sidewalk on the corner of Greenfield Ave. & 2nd St. 

Rockwell Green Roof filled with vegetation

Rockwell Automation Green Roof 

Sustainability

Rockwell Automation is a global leader in industrial automation and information that works to make the world more productive and sustainable. It serves customers in over 100 countries, and we are fortunate to have its headquarters located in Milwaukee.

Rockwell prioritizes sustainability in its environmental, social, and governance practices and policies, and its external partnerships.

Green Roof

Rockwell’s commitment to environmental sustainability enabled a partnership with the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District to install a 49,000-square-foot green roof on the 8th floor of the westernmost building in 2010.

The green roof is a layer of vegetation, like a big garden, planted over a waterproofing system that is installed on top of the flat roof. With more than a dozen varieties of sedum and native perennial plants, it has a range of environmental and health benefits, including improved stormwater retention, water and air quality, planting, heat and energy regulation, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions and heat island effect.

While it is beautiful, the green roof more importantly absorbs stormwater, preventing untreated water from flowing into our region’s waterways, and preventing local sewer overflows caused by downpours. Rockwell’s green roof captures hundreds of thousands of gallons of water each year.

Urban Bees

In order for the plants to grow, there must be pollination, and for pollination we need bees. Since bees don’t typically venture to the heights of Rockwell’s green roof, a beekeeper has brought in beehives. With hives in place, the bees multiply, pollinate, and make honey from plant sources throughout the Walker’s Point neighborhood.

The honey produced on Rockwell’s green roof has a unique taste and color, thanks to the specific nectar from the area’s plants. The honey is collected from the hives in the summer and sold at local farmers markets and businesses.

CONFLUENCE POINT

Location: 106 W. Seeboth St.

Find the sign on the Milwaukee RiverWalk just in front of Screaming Tuna restaurant.

1872 Map of Milwaukee featuring Confluence of 3 Rivers

Confluence Depicted in 1872 Map of Milwaukee 

(Photo: Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division)

 

Gathering on the Milwaukee RiverWalk

 Milwaukee RiverWalk, Downtown

 

Pedestrians on the Milwaukee RiverWalk

Milwaukee RiverWalk, Third Ward
 

A Confluence

As you look out over the water, what you’re seeing is the merging of the Milwaukee and Menomonee Rivers in what is known as a confluence. A confluence occurs wherever two or more rivers flow together and form a single channel, creating a new ecosystem distinct from each river on its own.

A confluence creates a blending of energy, species, chemistry, and habitats that allows biodiversity to thrive. Further to the southeast is another confluence, where the Kinnickinnic River also joins the flow before the rivers empty into Lake Michigan.

Across the river, the Milwaukee RiverWalk brings three unique neighborhoods together: Downtown, the Historic Third Ward, and Beerline B. Similar to the confluence, the RiverWalk blends together arts, restaurants, brewpubs, living space, shops, activities, and nightlife, and makes Milwaukee a thriving ecosystem of cultural diversity.

The Milwaukee RiverWalk

In 1988, the City announced the RiverWalk Initiative, a collaborative economic development plan to construct the over three-mile downtown RiverWalk. The RiverWalk and its associated river cleanup were catalytic, advancing significant private sector investment in Milwaukee’s downtown.

Developers transformed warehouses, tanneries, breweries and an abandoned industrial corridor into luxury and affordable residential units, office space, hotel rooms, performing arts centers and dozens of riverfront businesses and restaurants.

Today, Milwaukee’s RiverWalk System is a world-class public amenity that draws hundreds of thousands of people to the shores of the rivers each year.

Milwaukee Urban Water Trail

In front of you is also an access point to the Milwaukee Urban Water Trail, designed by local non-profit Milwaukee Riverkeeper as a cooperative effort to help community members gain safe and legal access to the Milwaukee, Menomonee, and Kinnickinnic Rivers.

The Milwaukee Urban Water Trail is a map for canoes, kayaks, and other small non-motorized boats on the urban portions of our three rivers and lakeshore. It includes access points, portages, hazards, and resting sites, and also includes information on historic, cultural, ecological, and scenic points of interest along the way. The trail connects a large stretch of the Milwaukee River and its tributaries in Ozaukee County to the more urban stretches in Milwaukee County and Lake Michigan.

 

BOONE & CROCKETT

Location: 818 S. Water St.

Find the sign near the boat launch in the outdoor seating area of Boone & Crockett restaurant.

The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District Water Treatment Facility

MMSD Water Treatment Facility

 

 

Kayakers on the Milwaukee River

Kayaking on the Milwaukee River

(Photo: Visit Milwaukee)

 

People on a Pedal Tavern

Pedal Tavern Group

Water Treatment Plant

The unique building you see across the river on Jones Island is Wisconsin’s largest water reclamation facility. This facility helps protect public health for 1.1 million people throughout the city, and filters contamination from entering our source of drinking water: Lake Michigan.

Over time, Jones Island has been a hub for diverse communities and trades, but in the 1920s the island became a City-owned sewage treatment plant. It is managed by the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD), a government agency providing water reclamation and flood management services to 28 communities across the Greater Milwaukee area. MMSD’s two water treatment facilities, Jones Island and South Shore, capture and clean 98.5% of Milwaukee’s wastewater, and with innovations such as the Deep Tunnel have reduced stormwater overflows from 50-60 per year down to just 2.3.

Wastewater comes from many sources including industrial facilities, surface runoff, and anything people send down their drains at home, work, or school. However, just because something fits down the drain doesn’t mean it belongs in our water system. The wastewater treatment process mimics nature by using “bugs”, or microbes, that eat organic material in the water. Once the bugs have eaten their fill, they’re removed from the water, dried, and turned into Milorganite, a fertilizer manufactured by MMSD since 1926 and recognized as one of the United States’ oldest recycling efforts.

Water Access

On this side of the river is a variety of food, entertainment, and activities that create a connection to the city and the rivers. The Cooperage has taken the historic barrel and cask manufacturing building behind you and given it new life with live music and dancing and private events spaces. The outdoor riverbank space provides a gathering area with access to local food trucks, and some of Milwaukee’s best tacos provided by Taco Moto. Boone & Crockett offers classically crafted cocktails and a Milwaukee favorite event: Flannel Fest.

Milwaukee Duffy Boat provides families with environmentally friendly access to the river and the Urban Water Trail on certified zero emissions electric boats that not only don’t pollute the water with gasoline or oil residues, they are also silent since there’s no engine so you can enjoy nature by not scaring it away.

Brew City Kayak allows you to eliminate the motor all together with their kayak and standup paddleboard rentals and tours. But if you prefer to stay on dry land, Milwaukee Pedal Tavern tours start here and will showcase the finer points of the Historic Third Ward, a revitalized warehouse district now full of dining options, boutique shops, art galleries, and trendy retailers, or Walker’s Point, an industrial area turned cultural and foodie hotspot.

PALIAFITO ECO-ARTS PARK

Location: 315 W. Walker St.

Find two signs along the walkway in the park.

Musicians performing in the park

"Music Under the Stars" at Paliafito Eco-Arts Park

 

 

People Building a Stormwater Holding Cistern

Construction of the Rain Catchment Cistern

Community Education 

The primary goal of the Eco-Arts Learning Center is to engage students, families, educators, neighborhood residents, and the broader community in hands-on, project-based environmental and arts learning.

The site of Paliafito Eco-Arts Park was once the second home of the Hanover Street Congregational Church, dating back to the 1850s in Walker’s Point. In 1952-1969, the Sky View Nursing Home was run by the Paliafito family for which the park was named. The building was razed in 1970. The site was abandoned until it was secured for use as a park by Historic Walkers Point Inc., now Historic Milwaukee Inc. It was dedicated in 1978.

Activities

Come join us for regular community programs in the park:

  • Summer: Friday night “Music Under the Stars” concert series and festivals.
  • Year Round: Art making workshops and environmental education programs.

Green Infrastructure

Each year, raised bed gardens are planted by students from Escuela Vieau for YOU, the community. Veggies and herbs are free to harvest for everyone. If you take a veggie, pull a weed!

Underneath is a 7,000-gallon rain catchment cistern. All water is captured from the performance stage in the park. In 2016, over 50 community members and Walker’s Point residents assisted with the construction and assembly of the cistern. This project was not possible without the support of the community who assisted in the design and installation of all aspects of the park.

These signs were designed and fabricated by High School students from Bradley Technology & Trade School.

HARBOR VIEW PLAZA

600 E. Greenfield Ave.

Find the sign just in front of the play area in the outdoor plaza across from the UWM-School of Freshwater Sciences.

Jones Island Present Day

Jones Island, Present Day

(Photo: Visit Milwaukee)

 

View of Jones Island Homes in 1915

Jones Island, 1915

(Photo: Milwaukee Public Library)

 

Alternate View of Jones Island in 1915

Alternative View of Jones Island, 1915

(Photo: Milwaukee Public Library)

Jones Island

(Story provided by Milwaukee Historian John Gurda)

 

Jones Island, which lies directly across the water, is not on anyone’s list of tourist hot spots. Separated from the city on three sides by water, the Island (actually a peninsula) is an urban wilderness covered with railroad tracks, salt piles, fuel tanks, cargo docks, and the largest sewage treatment plant in Wisconsinall of it literally overshadowed by the massive Dan Hoan Bridge. For lovers of post-industrial landscapes, Jones Island has a certain gritty charm, but most people would find it a place to be ignored or avoided.

Historic Development

Present appearances are deceiving. When you peel back its historical layers of development, Jones Island becomes one of the most fascinating parcels of real estate in Wisconsin. Here, despite its decidedly unlovely setting, virtually every stage in Milwaukee’s long history has left an imprint.

For untold centuries, an Indian village was perched on the northern tip of Jones Island, overlooking the mouth of the Milwaukee River. In the 1600s, fur traders from French Canada established a thriving post on the peninsula, sharing the space with their native suppliers.

In 1853, as Milwaukee was becoming a major Great Lakes port, a Yankee shipbuilder named James Monroe Jones began to build schooners and steamships on the Island. When a raging northeaster swept his business away in 1858, Jones gave up, leaving a windswept wasteland in his wake.

Into that void came the Kaszubs. In the 1870s, immigrants from the Kaszuby region on Poland’s Baltic seacoast began to colonize Jones Island. Fisherfolk in the Old World, they created a commercial fishing village that grew to become one of the most colorful communities in Milwaukee or any other Midwestern city. Its population peaked at nearly 1,600 in 1900, when Islanders were hauling up 2 million pounds of fish in their nets every year.

Present Use

This idyllic but rough-edged urban village flourished for nearly half a century, until the City of Milwaukee claimed the land in the 1920s for port facilities and the sewage treatment plant. Year by year, as landfill enlarged its footprint and development erased all signs of human habitation, Jones Island took on its present workaday character.

GLOBAL WATER CENTER

Location: 247 W. Freshwater Way

Find the sign on the sidewalk on the corner of 3rd St. and Freshwater Way, just across the street from the entrance to the center and in front of the bioswale.

Bioswale

Bioswale near the Global Water Center

 

 

The Global Water Center building

The Global Water Center

 

 

Kayakers on Lake Michigan under the Hoan Bridge

Kayakers on Lake Michigan 

Bioswale

In front of you is what’s known as a bioswale, a natural filtering system for rainwater and snow. Stormwater capture is part of the City of Milwaukee’s climate adaptation strategy. Installing bioswales around the city reduces the flow of stormwater into the sewer system and removes pollutants from our waterways. The City maintains these bioswales citywide through its Green Infrastructure maintenance plan.

Milwaukee's Water Technology Hub

Across the street is the Global Water Center, which was converted from a brick warehouse in 2013. The building is a state-of-the-art, USGBC-LEED Silver certified water business and research facility at the heart of Milwaukee's water technology hub. It is also the first office building in the world to implement the International Water Stewardship Standard created by the Alliance for Water Stewardship.

Milwaukee is situated on three rivers and Lake Michigan and is uniquely positioned to research and address water challenges. Over the years, the city has earned a global reputation as the freshwater technology capital of the U.S. Milwaukee’s economy, leisure and identity revolve around our abundant rivers and, of course, Lake Michigan, which is part of the world’s largest surface freshwater system.

Climate change, population growth, and contamination increasingly strain the world’s freshwater supply as seemingly infinite economic growth collides with the world’s finite natural resources. Protecting the planet’s water is vital to ensuring our longevity, but around the world over 2.2 billion people lack access to safe water. The Global Water Center is the home of The Water Council, dedicated to solving critical water challenges by driving innovation in freshwater technology and advancing water stewardship. The Council is committed to cultivating responsible stewardship of the world’s freshwater through training, advisory services and its WAVE: Water Stewardship Verified corporate water stewardship program.

Fund for Lake Michigan

The Water Current Tour that this sign is a part of was sponsored by the Fund for Lake Michigan, a private foundation headquartered at the Global Water Center. The Fund for Lake Michigan was established in 2011 to sustain and safeguard the lake on behalf of the people and places that depend upon its freshwater for their drinking water, food, recreation and commerce. As a grant making entity, the Fund supports efforts that enhance the health of the lake and improve water quality in the rivers and streams that feed into it. During its first ten years, the Fund awarded more than $35 million in grants to restore habitat, improve beaches, clean up rivers and streams, and revitalize waterfronts in the Milwaukee area and in other communities within Wisconsin’s Lake Michigan basin. These investments have incorporated workforce development goals and educational initiatives, improved human health and safety, stimulated local tourism. and contributed measurably to the region’s economy.

Thank You to Our Water Tour Partners

ECO would like to acknowledge those who supported and participated in the Water Centric City Design Workshop and helped generate concepts for the Water Current Tour. Read about the planning process in the The Water Current Tour Summary Report. Read the full press release about the Water Current Tour under the Department of City Development Press Releases.

Special thanks to the Fund for Lake Michigan, who provided funding for this project, as well as the many stakeholders who provided feedback and input during this process:

  • AmeriCorps
  • Arts @ Large
  • The Brico Fund
  • City as a Living Lab 
  • Department of City Development
  • Department of Public Works
  • Clean Wisconsin
  • Freshwater Tool Kit
  • Greater Milwaukee Committee
  • Greater Milwaukee Foundation
  • Harbor District, Inc.
  • Julilly Kohler
  • Lybra Loest
  • Milwaukee Food Tours
  • Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District
  • Milwaukee Public Schools
  • Milwaukee Riverkeeper
  • Milwaukee Water Commons
  • Milwaukee WaterWorks
  • Plastic-Free MKE
  • Port Milwaukee
  • Reflo
  • Rockwell Automation
  • Sixteenth Street Community Health Center
  • University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee, School of Freshwater Sciences
  • Visit Milwaukee
  • The Water Council
  • Walker’s Point Association
  • Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

In the News

Arts at Large CEO Sean Kiebzak at Paliafito Arts Park Stage

Arts @ Large CEO Sean Kiebzak at the Paliafito Eco-Arts Park Stage

(Photo: Spectrum News 1/Phillip Boudreaux)

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