Citizens monitor Milwaukee’s rivers

December 1, 2011

By Craig Helker

Drive over the Chase Avenue bridge and you’re more likely to notice the giant red Klement’s sausage sign than the Kinnickinnic River the bridge was built to span. It’s easy to overlook. But Christa Marlowe knows it’s there. She’s spent some quality time with the river this past year.

“Eight years ago, I never even knew this river existed,” admitted Marlowe. “Then a friend drafted me to come to a river clean-up event.”

That event, staged by the then-Friends of Milwaukee’s Rivers (now Milwaukee Riverkeeper) and the Bay View Neighborhood Association, inspired her. Ultimately, it’s the reason Marlowe recently climbed down from that Chase Avenue bridge, waded into the Kinnickinnic River, and dipped a sample bottle beneath its surface.

Christa Marlowe holds a dissolved oxygen sample from the KK River. —photo Craig Helker

By day, Marlowe is a science teacher at Milwaukee College Prep School. She’s also a BVNA volunteer who’s been monitoring river water quality for the past year. Once a month, she meets up with her monitoring partner Rick Hancock, and together they walk the trail down to the river, lugging sampling equipment. At the water’s edge, they take turns wading into the water for the various water tests, such as temperature, transparency (a measure of how much material is suspended in the water), and dissolved oxygen (how much oxygen is available to the aquatic life in the river).

Marlowe and Hancock are part of the Milwaukee Riverkeeper network of stream volunteers, over a hundred people strong. Milwaukee Riverkeeper’s Cheryl Nenn coordinates the local program.

“We have seven sites on the Kinnickinnic River, monitored by 12 volunteers,” Nenn said. “The KK is a challenge, with concrete portions not safe to wade into, so we’re constrained to [sample at] certain locations.”

Non-experienced citizen monitors start with Level 1 monitoring, designed to introduce volunteers to the basics, educate them about the waterbody type they are monitoring, and help them to understand the connection between land use and the resulting effects on water quality. “After a year of experience,” said Nenn, “interested volunteers can bump up to Level 2 monitoring.”

Volunteers like Marlowe and Hancock are considered Level 2 monitors. This level is more intense, with volunteers expected to sample at specific locations and follow more advanced sampling protocols.

Level 3 volunteers work on projects that are specifically focused. “Two citizen monitors helped out on a Level 3 project doing targeted monitoring on the Menomonee and KK, monitoring for E. coli and Bacteroides [bacteria that can serve as an indicator of human fecal material],” Nenn said. “Four pipes came back positive for human sewage.”

Local organizations like Riverkeeper conduct their volunteer monitoring programs under the umbrella of Wisconsin’s Citizen-Based Water Monitoring Network. Operated jointly by the Department of Natural Resources and the UW-Extension, the network provides training, support, and grant money to local volunteer groups. Kris Stepenuck coordinates the state program.

“Wisconsin is blessed with people who care, with strong support from local groups,” Stepenuck said. “Volunteers can be high school students looking for experience, all the way up to retirees who have a passion for the environment and take on monitoring as a second career.”

But make no mistake: the citizen volunteer networks are providing hard data for real science. Stepenuck said the state’s role is to facilitate monitoring that is consistent and quality-controlled, so that the public, DNR, and other agencies can use that data and know it is valid.

For example, the United States Geological Survey and trained Riverkeeper volunteers are conducting a Level 3 road salt monitoring project that expands upon monitoring done by USGS itself. The Kinnickinnic River is one of the rivers being monitored, with students in the environmental health program at MATC Mequon helping out. Last year’s monitoring revealed that six out of 18 monitored sites in the Milwaukee area, including the KK, had chloride concentrations exceeding EPA standards for acute toxicity.

It was getting dark when Marlowe and Hancock finished their assigned monitoring and packed up the sampling equipment. Marlowe looked upstream. “This part of the KK has gotten some love,” she said. “It needs some more.”

Craig Helker is a water resources biologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Wisconsin Citizen-Based Water Monitoring Network –

Milwaukee Riverkeeper –

Bay View Neighborhood Association –

To get involved with Citizen Stream Monitoring on the KK, or other Milwaukee-area rivers, contact Cheryl Nenn with Milwaukee Riverkeeper at (414) 287-0207.


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