Past generations poured sewage, trash and industrial chemicals into the Milwaukee River.
Most of the direct dumping has ended, but as WUWM Environmental Reporter Susan Bence reports, run-off from the land continues to choke the river, as do occasional sewer overflows.
Yet experts and advocates are relentless in their pursuit to improve the waterway.
MMSD Executive Director Kevin Shafer says there is reason to be optimistic about the sun-glinted Milwaukee River below us.
It has been two decades since the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District activated its deep tunnel.
It holds untreated wastewater during most storms, until the utility can filter it.
“We went from 50 to 60 overflows a year, down to two two-and-a half now,” Shafer says.
Those overflows send sewage into the Milwaukee River.
Shafer has told the world he aims to hit zero overflows by 2035; not by adding mega storage, but through green initiatives.
“By purchasing some of these waterway buffers, putting that land into natural vegetation...we’ll allow that water to infiltrate into the ground and help purify that water before it gets to the river,” Shafer says.
Shafer says determining what is living or lurking in the water, rain or shine is more elusive.
A Great Lakes Restoration Initiative grant gave MMSD the traction this year to pull together water quality monitoring along the Milwaukee River, as well as the Menomonee and KK.
Shafer says the final product is called a TMDL.
“The Total Maximum Daily Load is an effort and it’s a partnership with the Wisconsin DNR and the federal EPA Environmental Protection Agency; it kind of sets that baseline; it says here’s the target you want to be below for bacteria, for sediment, for phosphorus, for nitrogen all these different things. And it sets that benchmark, so if you’re above that benchmark it’ll identify the reaches of the river where those limits are exceeded,” Shafer says.
The MMSD executive says the report should be done in about a year, and could reveal hot spots far beyond its service area.
For instance, run off from farms entering the river.
He says the information could help the district, along with other regional stakeholders, pinpoint where remediation dollars would be most effectively spent.
In her School of Fresh Water Sciences lab just below the Milwaukee River, Sandra McLellan zeroes in on bacteria in the river that does not belong there.
“The river has a lot of natural bacteria; it’s part of the ecosystem, but bacteria from fecal pollution like agricultural runoff, sewage overflows or even just pet waste, people not cleaning up after their pets, can wash into the river and then we start to worry about kind of a direct health risk from people getting sick,” McLellan says.
According to DNR scientists, 95 percent of the substances that do not belong in the Milwaukee River have washed off the land, some decades ago.
“Where we’re looking at right out here, Susan is Lincoln Creek.”
Brenda Jones surveys her work in Lincoln Park, as a family gathers in the shaded picnic area.
“And then this portion of the river starting up here at the north bridge coming on around and going back down to the south bridge, we refer to that as the West Oxbow of the Milwaukee River,” Jones says.
Its sediment, until recently, was stocked full of toxins.
“There were a variety of industries along the river, but we were never able to point to one entity and say that was the issuer,” Jones says.
Jones is overseeing a multi-year $20 million clean up – EPA picking up most of the cost, and the Wisconsin DNR the rest.
“We had almost 10,000 dump trucks full of contaminated sediment,” Jones says.
Teams hauled PCBs, along with another contaminated material + “nonaqueous phaseliquids, or NAPL,” Jones says - to landfills.
Thousands more will be hauled away during phase two. The EPA ecologist deems the project a success, although she’s less certain when people will be able to safely eat fish they catch in the river.
“Bigger fish, the higher in the food chain that the fish are that people who consume are fish that are going to have a higher concentration of PCBs in them. What’s going to happen to those fish? Do they die off; do they get eaten up? The real story I guess is, new fish that move in here, will no longer have that exposure,” Jones says.
A few meandering miles south, Rotary Club of Milwaukee president Rick White envisions a sea of native trees, where now there is gravel and piles of brick and debris above, and sloping down to the river.
“That’s going away, there will be a parking area out here; there will be some wooded area here,” White says.
Rotarians raised $400,000 to create a 25-acre arboretum.
It’s slated to open next year and will amplify environmental programs the Urban Ecology Center offers in Riverside Park.
“They know how to do it and essentially it’s a huge classroom, which is great, because we know 40,000 kids comes through the Urban Ecology Center now . This will essentially increase their classroom space by 300 percent, if you want to look at it that way,” White says.
You don’t have to travel far to see White’s confidence might be well-founded.
A dozen preteens wearing oversized waders -drag and lift nets out of the river.
They dump their catch into water-filled tubs.
The premise of the summer camp is simple – give kids a hefty dose of “hands on” experience with the river, and a connection forms.
A bespectacled girl named Phoebe - trudges toward shore.
How would she rank the state of the Milwaukee River?
“Well we’ll find out I guess when we figure out all or bugs and count them up on the Dichotomous Key,” Phoebe says.
When I stared back blankly, the 6th grader patiently continues.
“Well, some of the macro invertebrates are sensitive, semi-sensitive, tolerant and semi tolerant are more tolerant of dirty water, but the sensitive ones won’t be in the dirty water as much; so that’s how you can tell how good the water is,” she explains.
Phoebe’s first directive, if asked to take charge....
“Make sure there’s no sewage dumping into the river – definitely,” Phoebe says.