WPR Details Wisconsin River Restoration Movement
Check out the great coverage by Wisconsin Public Radio about the reclamation of our urban rivers. It features our wonderful partners at the Sixteenth Street Community Health Center and the River Alliance of Wisconsin!
[excerpted from Wisconsin Public Radio]
by Chuck Quirmbach
The clean-up of urban rivers continues in Wisconsin. But the pace of the work can be slow and not every riverside community is making the investment.
Aside from the now-stalled clean up of PCB's from the Fox River near Green Bay, perhaps the most active urban river revitalization work in Wisconsin has been in Milwaukee. There's much to be done, as the area is home to many waterways with a hardly-pristine history, including the Milwaukee, Menomonee, and Kinnickinnic Rivers.
Ben Gramling stands on a bluff overlooking the Kinnickinnic River and describes what the K-K, as the river is sometimes called, used to look like in this roughly four-block stretch, "It's hard to impress upon anyone who is seeing this for the first time what this looked like as recently as a year ago. It looked in pretty poor shape."
Since then, concrete that formed part of the river bottom and banks has been removed and replaced by rocks. Vegetation has been planted and the river's course has been slightly altered. It's part of a multi-million dollar effort to control river flooding, reduce the risk of drowning, remove contaminated sediments and, Gramling says, other pollution.
"This is also where many, many shopping carts and other things have been deposited either by people on the banks right near, or coming with that water coming down through the channels," he says.
Gramling is director of environmental health programs at the 16th Street Community Clinic in Milwaukee. He's also a commissioner of the Metro Milwaukee Sewerage District. District Project Manager Dave Fowler says the next thing to happen along the K-K will be a few blocks west, where more flood-prone homes will be purchased and torn down.
"We'll wait until we have 12 of those houses," he says. "We'll put those into a deconstruction or demolition contract, and knock those down, we'll move on to another 12."
Eventually, the hope is to tear out more of the concrete channel of the Kinnickinnic and make it more like another Milwaukee area river-on-the-mend: the Menomonee.
Much has been done along this stretch of the Menomonee since floods in 1997 and 98. The work has included the taking out of a small dam, removal of homes and the installation of flood control berms. Mike Hahn of the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission acknowledges that people are still not swimming in or drinking out of the Menomonee, due to bacteria in the water, "It is an issue....not all the way there yet."
But Dave Fowler of the sewer district says fishing in the Menomonee is getting significantly better.
There's more concrete to be removed from the Menominee, and 60 million dollar floodwater detention ponds have not been fully tested by a huge rainfall or snowmelt, since recently being completed. But Fowler says the investments will be worth it if they prevent more flood damage., "And the lost economic time. There used to be businesses all in through here. the breweries and other things that closed because they got flooded twice."
Denny Caneff of the River Alliance of Wisconsin likes what he sees along the Menominee. But he says in some riverside communities, raising local funds or applying for federal clean up money is like pulling teeth, "There will be a lot of excuses about well, we're different. and some of that's true you can't blow that off, i mean these communities have cultures that are really interesting."
Caneff says in some cases, individuals or companies with deep pockets are coming forward. He says the S.C. Johnson Company is helping with a clean up of the Root River in Racine.
"Racine has a sugar daddy," he says. "Sheboygan's got a lot of money in it....industrial money. Neenah's got Bergstrom. God bless them all, I think this has been a good force."
Others say urban river cleanup also requires political leaders with courage, willing to bet that a financial investment will draw more people to the waterways. That would get more businesses to put their front door facing the river, instead of their back door and dumpster.