Reclaiming the Kinnickinnic River
July 31, 2009
By Jennifer Yauck
When workers hoisted a large clamshell bucket filled with sediment from the bottom of the Kinnickinnic River earlier this summer, it was a sign that the river’s fortunes had begun to change.
The bucketful was the first of many in an ongoing project aimed at removing pollutants and deepening the river over a 2,000-foot-long stretch near Bay View’s northern edge, between Becher Street and Kinnickinnic Avenue. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) are overseeing the $22 million dredging project, which is funded by federal and state dollars.
“It’s the first major investment in the river to take place in some time,” said Ben Gramling, director of environmental health programs at the Sixteenth Street Community Health Center (SSCHC). SSCHC is involved in efforts to improve the Kinnickinnic River, which runs through neighborhoods the center serves.
“For a long time, nobody thought about the Kinnickinnic, nobody talked about it,” Gramling said. “The fact that the DNR and EPA have committed to the project is a clear signal that this river is worth saving.”
Of Milwaukee’s three major rivers-the Kinnickinnic, Menomonee, and Milwaukee-the Kinnickinnic is the most urbanized. From its modest beginning in a storm sewer near 60th Street and Cleveland Avenue to its mouth some eight miles downstream near the Hoan Bridge, the Kinnickinnic River lies entirely within heavily developed Milwaukee County.
So, too, does the land from which the river receives runoff water, a roughly 26-square-mile watershed that is home to about 145,000 people-the most densely populated watershed in the area. While some portions of the Menomonee and Milwaukee river watersheds remain undeveloped or were developed only recently, virtually all of the Kinnickinnic’s watershed is developed-and has been for more than 30 years, said Gramling.
Those decades of urban pressures have taken their toll on the Kinnickinnic, which in 2007 was named one of the country’s most endangered rivers by the conservation organization American Rivers. More than two miles of the lower Kinnickinnic are designated “impaired” and part of a “Great Lakes Area of Concern” by EPA due to pollution by polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), heavy metals, bacteria, and nutrients. Further upstream, much of the river hardly resembles a river at all: long stretches of it are bound by concrete-lined channels, littered with garbage, and generally devoid of wildlife.
As a result, said Gramling, “the community has lost a connection to the river and the perception that it is a river.”
Improving the KK
But Gramling and others believe the Kinnickinnic River, like the Menomonee and Milwaukee rivers, can be improved-and that the social and economic well-being of the communities surrounding it will improve along with it. In recent years, SSCHC, environmental organizations, government agencies, scientists, business owners, and others have joined forces to develop and put in motion plans for the river’s revival.
The dredging project is one result of those efforts. The project will remove 170,000 cubic yards of sediment contaminated with 1,200 pounds of PCBs and 13,000 pounds of PAHs. The cleanup is intended to improve water quality and reduce risks to aquatic life and human health. It also will deepen the river, making it more accessible to recreational boaters and potentially spurring local business.
Another major project, designed to manage flooding along the river between Chase Avenue and 27th Street, is expected to begin next year. The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) is leading the proposed $50 million, multiyear project, which calls for replacing the Sixth Street bridge, removing the river’s deteriorating concrete lining, and widening and reconstructing the river channel.
MMSD may need to acquire an estimated 84 homes in the area to accommodate the work-a proposition that has received mixed reactions from potentially affected residents. MMSD is collaborating on a complementary effort led by SSCHC to find ways the flood management project can lead to improvements in housing, parks, infrastructure, safety, health, and property values in communities along the river. “We’re hopeful we can take a stream that’s so degraded and make it an amenity for the community,” said Tom Chapman, MMSD watercourse section manager.
Also working on a Kinnickinnic River initiative is the Southeastern Wisconsin Watersheds Trust (SWWT or Sweetwater Trust), a coalition of partners who collaborate on regional water resource issues. With funding from MMSD, SWWT is overseeing development of a watershed restoration plan that will identify cost-effective, science-based approaches for managing water pollution in the Kinnickinnic watershed. SWWT also recently received a $1.9 million grant from the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation, which supports efforts to protect the Great Lakes. A portion of the grant will fund development of projects that produce measurable improvements in water quality and habitat throughout the Kinnickinnic watershed.
Even with these and other ongoing efforts, though, Gramling cautions that it is unlikely the Kinnickinnic River can ever be restored to its original state. “We’re realistic about that,” he said. “But we still think we can do something better, and we need to do something better.”
Jennifer Yauck is a science writer at the Great Lakes WATER Institute. GLWI (glwi.uwm.edu) is the largest academic freshwater research facility on the Great Lakes.
- DNR - dnr.wi.gov/org/water/wm/sms/kkriver
- MMSD – v3.mmsd.com/NewsDetails.aspx
- SSCHC – sschc.org/kkplan
- SWWT – swwtwater.org
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