From an “Open Sewer” to our Greatest Asset: How Milwaukee Overcame a Legacy of Industrial Water Pollution

It’s a gorgeous sunny evening in downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

On the Milwaukee River, two friends call out to each other as they paddle their kayaks under the Water Street bridge.

Milwaukeeans enjoy the riverwalk in the Third Ward neighborhood. Photo courtesy of Visit Milwaukee.

A couple enjoying a drink on the patio of their riverfront condo raise a glass to a group doing the same on a pontoon boat chugging down the river.

The sound of live music and smells of delicious food waft out from bars and restaurants as people of all ages wander Milwaukee’s riverwalk, enjoying the all-too-short Wisconsin summer.

Such a scene would have been unthinkable to a Milwaukee resident in the 1960s, said Milwaukee historian John Gurda.

If they’d been told that you’d have very expensive housing along the river, that people would be out there in kayaks and paddleboards, that you’d have riverfront restaurant dining, they would have stared at you as if you were crazy,” he said.

Like many cities in the Upper Midwest, Milwaukee grew along the shores of the Great Lakes, concentrated at the confluence of three rivers leading to Lake Michigan: the MilwaukeeMenomonee and Kinnickinnic.

Bridge construction along the Milwaukee River in 1928. Photo courtesy of Historic Photo Collection/Milwaukee Public Library.

The breweries that made Milwaukee famous blossomed along with tanneries, machine shops and other industry. Farms thrived upstream and settlers flocked to the area searching for a better life.

And as in many cities, the industrialists, farmers and residents paid little attention to what they dumped into the water.

It was an open sewer,” said Gurda, noting the Milwaukee River was described in 1881 as “a current-less and yellowish murky stream, with water like oil and an odor combined of the effluvia of a hundred sewers.”

Turning the Tide

That slowly changed over the course of the 20th century, first as the city started treating drinking water and wastewater and later with the passage of the Clean Water Act, which limited what communities and industries can release in waterways.

The Water Council was formed in 2009, and its headquarters, the Global Water Center, opened in 2013.

Today, Milwaukee is a global leader in managing water naturally through a collaborative, watershed-based approach that serves as a model for other cities.

But more work remains to be done, and Milwaukee will rely on its collaborative network more than ever in the coming years as it undertakes the largest cleanup effort in Great Lakes history.

Milwaukee’s industrial history offers a mixed blessing regarding water – it led to terrible pollution of our waterways, but it also spawned many water solution businesses that still make their home in the area, including Badger MeterA. O. Smith Corporation and Kohler Company

Civic and business leaders, recognizing Milwaukee’s status as a global hub for water technology, founded The Water Council in 2009. We help solve global water challenges by driving freshwater innovation and advancing water stewardship.

Although we work with water users and innovators around the world, we are proud to see Milwaukee leading the way in innovation and stewardship to protect our freshwater resources.

Managing Water Where It Falls

Technically, the Milwaukee area is a collection of three watersheds that form the Milwaukee River Basin, covering 882 square miles and 1.3 million people.

The Deep Tunnels measure up to 32 feet in diameter in some places. Photo: MMSD.

Milwaukee is served by a combined sewer system, which means wastewater and stormwater run through the same sewers and treatment facilities before it is all returned to Lake Michigan.

Periods of intense rain can overwhelm the facilities, leading to basement backups and the release of untreated wastewater into Lake Michigan. But the region received a boost when the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewage District (MMSD) built the Deep Tunnel System in the 1990s and early 2000s.

The Deep Tunnels include nearly 30 miles of tunnel buried hundreds of feet underground, able to hold up to 521 million gallons of water until it’s ready to be treated. Though the system was controversial when it was built, it has proved highly effective. MMSD now captures and cleans 98.5 percent of the water entering its system, far higher than the 85 percent required by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Kevin Shafer, MMSD executive director since 2002, would like to push the total closer to 100, but that will grow more difficult as climate change causes more instances of intense rainfall.

MMSD interns plant a rain garden to help manage water where it falls. Photo: MMSD.

That’s why he’s overseen efforts to “manage water where it falls,” including naturalizing concrete waterways, creating floodplain easements and promoting green infrastructure.

The district’s green infrastructure program started with free and low-cost rain barrels for residents. At the time, rain barrels were so rare the EPA didn’t even have design criteria for them.

“We just started doing it because it made sense,” Shafer said. “If a rain barrel holds 55 gallons of water, that’s 55 gallons that doesn’t wash off into the creek or get into a sewer system and cause an overflow.

The district now provides resources and education for green infrastructure such as rain barrels, rain gardens, porous pavement and natural landscaping to residents, businesses, government agencies and nonprofits.

It keeps water out of the system, it brings the public into the equation and it educates them about the value of water,” he said.

One Water

MMSD has expanded its flood mitigation efforts beyond the district borders, purchasing 5,300 acres of undeveloped private land as conservation easements along streams, shores and wetlands. Its Working Soils program acquires agricultural land easements and works with farmers to improve soil health and mitigate flooding upstream of Milwaukee.

We started talking about how we manage that drop of water as a watershed,” Shafer said.

Mequon Nature Preserve has restored 40 acres of wetlands on its property. Photo courtesy of Mequon Nature Preserve.

That “one water” mindset has coalesced in southeastern Wisconsin into the One Water, Our Water initiative, which counts two dozen organizations among its supporters.

One supporter is Mequon Nature Preserve, sitting on 510 acres of prairie, wetland and forest about 15 miles from downtown Milwaukee. The organization has restored about 40 acres of wetland over 20 years, said Kristin Gies, Executive Director.

Wetlands are super critical, especially for an area like ours,” she said. “Wetlands capture water that is coming from our surrounding areas and filter out all of the various sediments and toxins and issues in the water that eventually flows to the river and becomes our drinking water.”

The nature preserve also works with local farmers, particularly in the Hmong community, to protect the soil and water through practices such as no-till farming, cover crops, and reducing herbicide and pesticide use.

It even does some small-scale farming in collaboration with Fondy Food Center, an organization working to bring fresh, healthy food to Milwaukee residents.

Water connects us all,” Gies said. “I couldn’t sit in the chair I’m at if I wasn’t working in harmony with all the surrounding partners and the great work they’re doing. It’s only going to work if we can see collectively that common vision.

A City Transformed

The Harley-Davidson Museum opened in 2008 along the Menomonee River. Photo courtesy of Visit Milwaukee.

The collective efforts have transformed Milwaukee in the 21st century.

Far from a stinking, dirty mess, Milwaukee’s waterways are now the centerpiece of our brand.

A dynamic riverwalk has been developed downtown that stretches into the city’s Historic Third Ward – once an ailing warehouse district that is now one of Milwaukee’s trendiest neighborhoods, full of shops, restaurants, condos and businesses.

Just to the south, the Global Water Center – home to The Water Council and numerous water-related businesses – opened in 2013 in a converted warehouse along the Menomonee River.

The Milwaukee Art Museum and Northwestern Mutual tower have transformed Milwaukee’s skyline. Photo by Peter Zuzga.

The same neighborhood has seen the development of the Harley-Davidson Museum and new corporate headquarters for Rite-Hite, a manufacturer of loading dock equipment, and Zurn Elkay Water Solutions.

Along the lakefront, the Milwaukee Art Museum opened an addition designed by renowned architect Santiago Calatrava that has become a famous landmark.

Across the street, Northwestern Mutual built a 32-story skyscraper as part of its corporate headquarters and recently announced plans for another tower.

The biggest change is how people relate to our rivers,” Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson said.

It is now common to see kayakers on the Milwaukee River. Photo: Visit Milwaukee.

We’ve seen growing activity along the riverwalks along with more and more people on the water in kayaks, canoes and paddleboards. The role of our waterways is a growing part of recreation in Milwaukee,” he added.

The changes have benefited the entire region, particularly when it comes to talent attraction and retention, said Tim Sheehy, president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce.

The competitive advantage we have in Milwaukee is our waterways,” he said. “We’re built on a lake; we have a river running through our city. It’s an amenity that contributes immensely to the livability of our city.

A Long Way to Go

But the benefits have not fallen to all residents equally, said Kirsten Shead, co-executive director of Milwaukee Water Commons.

The organization formed in 2013 to foster connection, collaboration and broad community leadership, promoting stewardship, equitable access and shared decision-making for our common waters.

Milwaukee Water Commons holds an annual We Are Water event to celebrate how water unites us. Photo by Joel Peregrine for Milwaukee Water Commons.

Milwaukee remains one of the most segregated cities in the nation, with high disparities in education, employment, income and incarceration.

People of color, immigrants and people with disabilities have not benefited from jobs created in the water sector and still suffer from high levels of lead poisoning, in part because of aging drinking water infrastructure, Shead said. Although many people of color live a few miles from Lake Michigan, they often feel unsafe or unwelcome at the waterfront.

Our view is we all need to have a part in the care of our waters and restoration of the waters, but we all also need to benefit,” she said.

Despite its significant achievements, Milwaukee also has a long way to go in improving the quality of its river and lake water, said Jennifer Bolger Breceda, executive director of Milwaukee Riverkeeper.

The EPA has designated the Milwaukee Estuary – located at the meeting of Milwaukee’s three rivers and Lake Michigan – as one of 43 Areas of Concern (AOC) along the Great Lakes because sediment deposited from generations of pollution impairs public benefits such as fish consumption, boat access and wildlife habitat.

The Area of Concern includes the spot where Milwaukee’s three rivers converge and meet Lake Michigan. Map courtesy of Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Now, thanks to funding from the federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and other sources, Milwaukee has a “generational” opportunity to make major progress in delisting the site as an AOC and improving the water quality, Bolger Breceda said.

The largest planned project is a new dredged material management facility in the Milwaukee harbor. The $150 million facility will provide safe, secure containment for 1.9 million cubic yards of sediment that will be sucked out of the riverbeds.

The sediments will then settle for more than two decades to create 42 new acres of lakefront land. The project is currently in design phase, with construction expected to start in early 2024.

The dredging, along with ongoing projects such as dam removals, a fish passage and wetland restoration, will lead to new developments, better habitat for wildlife and more recreational opportunities, Shafer said.

That’s when you’ll start seeing the rejuvenation of some of the most polluted, impervious industrial areas in the region,” he said.

Something Special

Community engagement is key to making sure residents understand the project and spreading the benefits to all demographics, Bolger Breceda said.

This is a very wonky, complicated project to ask people to engage in,” she said. “This is not just a summer construction project.

That’s why the partners involved – collectively known as the Waterway Restoration Partnership – created the Community Advisory Committee. The committee is a diverse group of Milwaukee residents who serve as liaison between the partnership and local neighborhoods, organizations and residents, ensuring that the communities most impacted by the AOC inform project decisions.

Environmental justice is an important piece of the AOC work, Bolger Breceda said. Participating residents and organizations are paid for their time and expertise. Organizers provide childcare and transportation for community meetings. The partnership plans to work with the EPA on health impact assessments and job-training opportunities and is working on strategies to prevent gentrification, so residents aren’t priced out of their homes once the work is complete.

We’re really doing something special here,” she said. “If we can come up with some ways to address these challenging problems that give a roadmap or ideas to other areas, it’ll be great. We’ll be able to amplify what we’re doing in Milwaukee across the Great Lakes.

The Harbor District included a public plaza in its strategic plan. Photo courtesy of Harbor District Milwaukee.

Harbor District Milwaukee took a similar approach when it created a water and land use plan for Milwaukee’s inner harbor, said Tia Torhorst, district CEO.

The plan emphasizes public waterfront access, something that’s been lacking in the area up to now. A public plaza with a play structure, water feature and canoe/kayak launch opened in 2019, and the district has plans to expand the riverwalk to the harbor with easy access, habitat features and green space.

We really opened the space up for the imagination of the community,” Torhorst said.

The plan also includes environmentally responsible economic development. The new riverwalk is expected to break ground this year alongside the recently completed headquarters campus for Milwaukee-based Komatsu Mining Corp.

Komatsu was intentional about its stormwater management, including biobasins and bioswales on its property, to ensure that the water gets to the lake cleaner than when it hit the ground, Torhorst said.

Economic Sense

Other businesses near the harbor have embraced the stewardship mindset. For example, my colleagues at The Water Council worked with Engel Tool and Forge, a small steel parts manufacturer, to improve its water stewardship. The company reduced water usage by 90 percent by implementing a closed-loop water system for cooling equipment.

Rockwell Automation is working with The Water Council to improve water stewardship in its business and with its clients. Photo courtesy of Visit Milwaukee.

We recently announced a partnership with Rockwell Automation, a global corporation with headquarters in the Harbor District, to help the company and its clients improve water stewardship through our WAVE: Water Stewardship Verified program.

Businesses have a responsibility to be good water stewards, but it’s also in their best interests, said Sheehy of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce.

It’s both environmental stewardship but it’s also economic,” he said. “As the cost of putting effluent into the waterways has gone up, companies are more interested in controlling that cost, along with the benefits of a cleaner system.

MMAC has vocally supported the AOC work and improving the waterways in general, Sheehy said.

It’s not rocket science: Protect the asset that you have and make sure it’s handed down in better condition than you received it,” he said.

Change for the Better

Milwaukee leaders want waterways to become more swimmable, fishable and accessible to all. Photo: Harbor District Milwaukee.

Milwaukee’s leaders have a vision for what that could look like.

I think you’ll see redevelopment really shoot up around the waterways in the next few years,” Shafer said. “The fish will be safe to eat; it will be a cleaner environment.

We want to have kids be able to play in the waters and the riverbeds safely with clean water and soil but also be educated about water safety,” Torhorst said. “We want to have amazing vistas for people to walk along the rivers and the lake.

The fact that this vision is closer than ever is meaningful to Gurda, the Milwaukee historian.

Our ancestors put all that gunk in the river, from oils to heavy metals to scrapings from the tanneries, and we’re the ones taking it out,” he said. “The child improves on the parent. That doesn’t always happen, but it’s the way it should be. That means a lot to me, even in the larger sense that things can change for the better.”

This article was originally published in REVITALIZATION, the journal of urban, rural, and environmental resilience, and is re-published here with permission. 

About the Author: 

Stacy Vogel Davis is communications director of The Water Council, a nonprofit based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, that is helping solve global water challenges by driving freshwater innovation and advancing water stewardship.

She is a lifelong Milwaukee resident who loves taking her family to the local beaches along Lake Michigan.

Stacy is a proud graduate of Milwaukee Public Schools and Northwestern University, with a degree in journalism.

CGLR’s business and sustainability network programming is supported by the Fred A. and Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation.

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