Watershed in rehab

June 30, 2011

By Kate Morgan

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Along 15th Street, neighbors are working in their yards. A few are disconnecting gutter downspouts and installing rain barrels to collect the rainwater. Others are walking around their homes looking for the best place for a rain garden or discussing what to plant in the new swales between the sidewalk and the street. At the end of their block, the Kinnickinnic River rushes along its concrete stream bank.

This targeted group of homeowners is participating in the Kinnickinnic River Residential Stormwater Project, organized by the Sixteenth Street Community Health Center in hopes of catalyzing other similar projects throughout the 25-square-mile watershed.

“My property will be a demonstration site for my neighbors, and I hope they become interested in having rain gardens, rain barrels, and swale gardens in their properties as well, to help reduce pollution that enters the river,” said Mayra Romo, a participating homeowner.

Groundwork Milwaukee designed and is installing the residential green infrastructure. Milwaukee Riverkeeper will collect river data to gauge the project’s effectiveness.

What are BMPs?

Green infrastructure practices, also referred to as BMPs or best management practices, reduce the flow of stormwater by mimicking processes in nature that slow, store, or spread rainfall. The practices include the use of rain gardens, rain barrels and cisterns, green roofs, stormwater trees, bioswales, and porous pavements to reduce the flow of stormwater from a site.

“Stormwater control measures, such as bioswales, porous pavement, and rain gardens, not only effectively reduce the volume of runoff, but also trap the pollutants,” said Roger Bannerman, environmental specialist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. “Designs of these controls have been tested and the designs have been found to be compatible with the urban environment.”

This pilot project will be replicated in three additional target areas thanks to a $216,000 grant from the Fund for Lake Michigan, established in 2008 as part of a resolution to a dispute between environmental groups and We Energies over how its expanded Oak Creek Power Plant would affect Lake Michigan. Over the next two decades, the fund will award $4 million annually to projects that restore habitat and reduce water pollution in order to enhance the health of Lake Michigan, its shoreline, and tributary river systems.

Fund for Lake Michigan will also provide $188,000 to the conservation nonprofit American Rivers to support another initiative in the Kinnickinnic watershed—expanding the installation of BMPs on properties of businesses owners in a targeted area of the Wilson Park Creek sub-watershed.

Green infrastructure will be installed to permeate two acres of impervious surface at General Mills, 4625 S. Sixth St., and 10 acres at The Islamic Society of Milwaukee’s Salam School, 815 W. Layton Ave. Impervious parking lots will be replaced with porous pavement strips that allow stormwater to infiltrate on site. Rooftop downspouts will be disconnected from the storm sewers, and roof flow will be redirected into bioswales for better infiltration.

The combined impact of these practices is anticipated to reduce the amount of stormwater runoff by 391,000 gallons per one-inch rainstorm to the Wilson Park Creek tributary of the KK, according to calculations regarding storage capacities of the systems to be implemented. The projects are also expected to reduce phosphorus, bacteria, and total suspended solid loadings carried by stormwater.

“These projects will help us monitor the overall performance and effectiveness of a variety of stormwater BMPs to control water quantity and treat water quality on large-scale commercial properties,” said Sean Foltz, associate director of American Rivers’ Clean Waters program.

Where is Wilson Park Creek?

By Michael Timm

If you thought the much-maligned Kinnickinnic River was out-of-sight and out-of-mind, you probably never even heard of its primary tributary, Wilson Park Creek.

It drains 2.25 square miles and has an average flow of about 28 gallons per second, but, like so many things, Wilson Park Creek hides in the negative spaces of our society.

Believe it or not, the water feeding this creek actually stems from Cudahy—in the wetland tucked between Whitnall Avenue, the Patrick Cudahy meat packing plant, and the Ladish foundry. Though you might not expect that water flowing to the lake would head away from it, the water doesn’t care what you think. Following the law of gravity, a small creek flows westward from a Patrick Cudahy wetland by the Cudahy Car Shop at 5000 S. Whitnall Ave., parallel to Edgerton Avenue to its north, then underneath Pennsylvania Avenue, where it’s somewhat rudely routed into a channel draining most of the airport’s 2,180 acres.

Now underground, the “creek” is hard to spy until it re-emerges a mile to the west. Motorists on Howell Avenue stopped at Layton might just glimpse the concrete moat, beneath the airport’s welcome sign, where the creek’s two subterranean forks combine.

From the airport, the creek flows northwest. Mostly channelized by concrete, it flows under Sixth Street near Armor Avenue, then slogs underneath the freeway near 13th Street before running through the south part of Wilson Park, hence the name.

But its journey doesn’t stop there. Wilson Park Creek soldiers on to the north, behind the strip mall on S. 27th Street, then made almost invisible by urban planners who routed it underneath the bustling 27th-and-Morgan intersection. Not to be denied, the creek emerges north of Morgan behind Walmart, still bound by concrete slabs, angles its way behind the Southgate movie theater and then, underground once more along 30th Street, finally, a traumatized lover seeking confluence, merges with another waterway behind St. Luke’s Hospital. Some six miles from that Cudahy wetland, the creek has now joined a river: the Kinnickinnic.


Kate Morgan is water policy director of 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, working in support of the Southeastern Wisconsin Watersheds Trust.


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One Comment on "Watershed in rehab"

  1. Stormwater Control on Fri, 8th Jul 2011 9:38 pm 

    Always nice seeing people doing their part to protect the lakes and rivers of our cities. Thanks for posting!!!

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