Project Milwaukee: How Will The Environment Fare

Jun 9, 2011

This week WUWM is reporting on the potential of regional development within the corridor spanning from Milwaukee south to the greater Chicago area.

Today we poke into the health of the region's environment. We hear alerts when the air quality is poor because of exhaust and the particular air flow here – and air pollution can thwart the development of new factories. And we've been hearing plenty about the threat of Asian carp to Lake Michigan, coming via Chicago's link with the Mississippi River.

But WUWM Environmental Reporter Susan Bence learned about two projects in the region having healing affects on their surroundings.

Scientist Tim Ehlinger calls the geography of the region an environmental tipping point.

The I-94 corridor between Milwaukee and Chicago straddles the sub-continental divide, separating the Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River basins.

Jerry Ziegler at Chiwaukee Preserve.

That means the region supports two different eco-systems.

And the UWM biologist says "the wow" doesn't end there.

"There's a number of really important watersheds that go through that area," Ehlinger says.

The three noteworthy watersheds are the Root River, the Pike River and the Des Plaines.

Ehlinger says the Des Plaines flows into the Mississippi basin while the Root and Pike are Lake Michigan-bound. The scientist has sunk a good deal of research time into the meanderings of those rivers and streams and their histories.

He says when Europeans showed up they discovered a lush, wet prairie, perfect for farming, especially after a bit of sculpting to alter the water flow.

"In the late 1800s with the invention of the steam shovel, farmers were able to take the small, sort of rivulets and dredge into drainage ditches. So the agricultural drainage districts were very, very important sort of spurring the agricultural and economic development of that corridor for close to 100 years," Ehlinger says.

The end of World War II stimulated urban development nearby.

As the population in the region grew and farm fields gave way to subdivisions and parking lots, Ehlinger says the agriculturally-altered streams could no longer contain the rain spilling off ever-more-pervasive pavement.

"Rather than that water sinking into the prairie soils, it ran off the roads right into these straightened rivers and you saw a steady increase in the frequency and magnitude of the floods in these streams," Ehlinger says.

Ehlinger and I met off Highway 20 on Oakes Road to see how the Village of Mount Pleasant is managing storm water to prevent flooding.

A sign reads "Pike River Pathway", and a few people are walking the trail that loops through a series of wetlands.

Ehlinger says the village has been unearthing the natural hydraulics here that early farmers modified.

"So what was fascinating is that this was a farm field probably nine feet higher than we're standing right here. So, I'm guessing that one hundred years ago this area was just springs. What's funny is as the contractors dug down and dug down, suddenly we hit a lot of springs," Ehlinger says.

Native plants and wildlife are already rebounding.

"This section of the stream right now, I can go down there and I can see Kati flies which are an indicator of really high quality water," Ehlinger says.

Director of Engineering Bill Sasse gazes out at the project's first phase.

He says it's taken many years and revised proposals to get to this point.

The first amounted to carving out a super-sized retention pond on the southern edge of town.

"The original plan had more of the mindset of, I guess you could say, the 70s and 80s which was a very engineered solution to the flooding problem only and didn't account for the environmental conditions of the river," Sasse says.

The DNR did not okay the strategy, so Mount Pleasant went back to the drawing board.

Now it has permission to attempt mimicking what nature created, at a cost of $17 million.

Sasse says the project should be completed by 2014.

"So as the village grows this facility will be able to handle the additional development that would occur," Sasse says.

Miles away, in one of the fastest-growing areas in the region ,Kenosha County, Jerry Ziegler stands in the largest prairie of its kind in Wisconsin.

Wild iris and shooting stars create splashes of color, while Monarch butterflies flutter through the air. Birds zoom by too quickly to be identified.

"This is an important stopover on the Lake Michigan flyways for migrating birds, because as you see as you go along the coastline, there aren't many places, large areas for birds to stop," Ziegler says.

Ziegler says it was sheer serendipity that this precious parcel a jump away from Lake Michigan sidestepped development.

The land had been slated to become a swishy Chicago getaway, called Chiwaukee.

"Chiwaukee is a made up name, it's Chicago Milwaukee. And somebody got the bright idea in the 1920s, hey let's put this resort between the two communities. They had the railroad access right behind us. They were going to build a big hotel, they did build a golf course; remnants of the golf course are still here," Ziegler says.

Ziegler points to a low stone structure, a pump house designed to water the course.

But the Great Depression got in the way of the dream.

Ziegler says in 1965 The Nature Conservancy was able to snatch up 35 acres, and the acreage has multiplied by 20 times since.

Today the conservancy manages the south section, UW-Parkside an adjacent chunk, while the DNR stewards the stretch that nearly bumps into the City of Kenosha.

Ziegler says it's all part of an even more massive ecosystem stretching from Kenosha to Waukegan, Illinois and boasts more than 400 species of vascular plants.

"And you also have 63 species in this area that are either endangered or threatened in some way or other," Ziegler says.

Although the Chiwaukee Prairie may be an unknown treasure to most of us, it's no secret to researchers.

Ziegler says at any given time, 20 scientists are at work here, and there's still a lot they don't know about the workings of the water underground.

A collaborative Great Lakes stewardship study has been launched to dig into the hydrology and other environmental issues within the system.

Back in his UWM office, Biologist Tim Ehlinger calls the Chiwaukee Preserve and Pike River initiative examples of "environmental enlightened" planning in the I94 Corridor.

"You have the needs of the society down there in terms of economic activity, development and jobs and then you have the need to be able to protect and preserve the important ecosystem features," Ehlinger says.

Maintaining that balance, Ehlinger says, will require vision and money.