South Side Neighbors Engage in Rebirth of Milwaukee's KK River

May 4, 2015

Most of the Kinnickinnic River looks like a giant drainage ditch. However, work is underway to restore the river to it's natural flow.

Back in the 1960s, the KK was channelized with concrete slopes. At the time, the technique was considered to be a state-of-the-art storm water management system. Instead, the channels led to devastating flooding.

Work on the KK will stretch from I-94 to 43rd Street by Jackson Park.
Credit Google Map

By 2007, the river was named one of the 10 most endangered rivers in the United States.

To turn the problem around the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, or MMSD, developed a comprehensive plan to naturalize the river from I-94 to Jackson Park.

5% of the project has been completed. Progress is clearly visible at South 6th Street and Cleveland Avenue. Downstream, the KK River meanders and practically shouts ''I am alive!" Look upstream, and you can see the channel of concrete.

April 18. 2015 clean up and celebration along the KK River at the South 6th Street Bridge.
Credit S Bence

MMSD estimates the flood risk management project will end up costing $80 million and require the demolition of an estimated 83 homes and businesses within the floodplain. Both numbers could grow.

Groups like Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers, or SSCHC, see beyond the benefits of the storm water management plan; they see the Kinnickinnic becoming a safer and more hospitable river.

“It’s really important for us to be able to connect people to why this stretch of the river and this transformation is important for their quality of life, for the environment, for the habitat, and for their wellness and their health,” SSCHC's Iris Gonzalez says.

Peter Levi and Iris Gonzalez hope blending science and community engagement will create a health KK River ecosystem.
Credit S Bence

Scientist Peter Levi is also playing a role in drawing more neighbors to the changing Kinnickinnic. He’s a stream ecologist and post-doctoral research associate at the UW Center for Limnology.

Last summer, Levi studied six restoration projects on all three of Milwaukee’s rivers – the Milwaukee, Menomonee and this spot on the Kinnickinnic.

He set out to determine whether the restored reach is healthier than the concrete channel above.

“There’s very little data, or scientific evaluations to show if the restorations improve the river ecosystem despite billions of dollars spent throughout the country on these projects every year,” Levi says.

His research filled that science gap. But Levi also filled kids living in the neighborhood with interest. 

"I think that it’s really important for scientists to get out in the community and do outreach, instead of being seen as these strange foreigners who are only coming into the community, measuring and collecting data and then writing papers. I think it’s all the more important to come out here and talk to people about the river," Levi says.

When he wasn’t collecting and crunching river date, Levi helped kids fashion small floating vessels to carry out their own experiment.

Alejandra Hernandez of SSCHC headed the summer camp. “They were little dowel boats. We could see how fast they went on the concrete part of the channel, versus the naturalized part of the river. They were real little scientists. They made a hypothesis, did their boat races and then we had our conclusion,” Hernandez says.

Hernandez says the kids’ findings practically mirrored the scientific results. “It was really really close, almost exactly the same as what (Levi’s) data showed.”

Levi says getting kids excited about science and caring about the river, even a highly urbanized one, is valuable.

“In a neighborhood that often you think there is no nature, or this is no natural ecosystem, but all you have to do is look at is in a slightly different way and there’s so much around us,” Levi says.

The entire KK restoration project is slated to be completed in 2022.