Milwaukee River earns poor marks

Despite local conservation efforts, sections of river in Ozaukee County receive grades in the D to F range from organization that says rainfall is to blame

MILWAUKEE RIVERKEEPER VOLUNTEER Amanda Oswald collected water samples from the Milwaukee River near Riveredge Nature Center in the Town of Saukville late last year. Oswald’s samples will be used to develop the Riverkeeper’s report card on the river’s cleanliness next year. Riverkeeper report cards have inspired several conservation efforts, including Riveredge’s Community Rivers Program, which was kicked off in 2017 by volunteers who planted vegetation along riverbanks in Newburg (photo below). Photos by Sam Arendt
By 
DAN BENSON
Ozaukee Press staff

Despite increasing local efforts to control runoff and improve water quality, the cleanliness of the Milwaukee River took a hit in 2018 and looks to take another for 2019, according to a recently released report card that measures the levels of contaminants in the river basin.

The cleanliness of the Milwaukee River was slightly worse in 2018, mostly due to heavier than normal rainfalls that washed debris and contaminants into local streams, according to the annual Milwaukee Riverkeeper report card.

The report card gave the entire 875-mile water basin a D, down from a C-minus the year before.

But the river from Waubeka south to Grafton in places didn’t score even that well, with some areas near Waubeka, Fredonia and Ulao Creek in the Town of Grafton getting grades in the D to F range.

“Ulao creek is a frustrating one,” Cheryl Nenn, with Riverkeeper said. “The headwaters of that stream are largely protected but there are incredible amounts of sediment from agricultural land and drainage from I-43, which brings a lot of different chemicals.”

With increased runoff comes increased levels of chlorides from road salt, bacteria such as E. coli from manure and human waste, and phosphorus, which speeds up plant growth and spurs algae blooms.

“Fredonia and Waubeka are kind of a mixed bag,” Nenn said. “I’m kind of surprised that water quality is as negative as it is. We probably want to do some more monitoring there because generally that part of the river does pretty well. One of my favorite places to paddle a canoe or kayak is right there near Waubedonia Park.”

The East-West Branch of the Milwaukee River, which includes the area around Newburg and West Bend and points north and west, was given a B-, same as in 2017. That was the best grade given to any region in the basin, although the report noted a slow decline in the branch’s overall score in recent years.

“The river between West Bend and Newburg has done quite well,” Nenn said. 

The Milwaukee River from Waubeka south through Ozaukee County is part of the river’s South Branch data, which includes metropolitan Milwaukee County, so it’s hard to pinpoint a more precise score for the Ozaukee County portion. 

The South Branch as a whole received a D grade, down from a D-plus, due mainly to runoff as 51% of the South Branch flows through urban areas. 

The report card is based on water samples taken from the river last year by 82 volunteers who made 542 site visits throughout the year. 

More testing is done on the South Branch than other areas of the river,  but the number of samples being taken in northern Ozaukee has increased in recent years, the report said. 

That includes samples being taken on the Milwaukee River near the Riveredge Nature Center in the Town of Saukville. Samplers also included those from the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, Ozaukee County Planning and Parks Department and Great Lakes Environmental Center.

Riverkeeper officials say they don’t expect next year’s grade to improve much, being that this year’s rainfall has outpaced 2018’s.

“The amount of rainfall we’ve received threw things out of a whack,” Nenn said. “That is concerning for us, despite all the great work the communities and farmers are doing, we are sort of running at a standstill.”

That “great work” includes work being done by each community to combat runoff and keep contamination to a minimum.

The DNR is requiring communities to cut phosphorus, bacteria and total suspended solids to reduce runoff.

That’s prompted municipalities in northern Ozaukee County and elsewhere to invest millions of dollars in their treatment facilities and reduce runoff at its source.

That includes an Ozaukee County program to promote no-till farming practices meant to increase absorption into the soil.

“Ozaukee County is doing some really good collaborative work with farmers to keep the land on the land and out of our rivers,” Nenn said. 

That includes work being done by Clean Farm Families and Ozaukee County Demonstration Farm Network, which work with farmers to reduce runoff into streams and Lake Michigan.

Ozaukee County is a state leader in those efforts, Nenn said.

“There are some cool tools out there and I think we’re all feeling pretty optimistic” that things are improving, she said.

“Unfortunately, it took us a long time to get to this level of pollution and it’s going to take some time to get it where we need to be.”

Grades for other parts of the Milwaukee River basin included:

ν North branch, which includes areas from Ozaukee County into Sheboygan, Washington and Fond du Lac counties: Grade C, slightly improved from a C-minus in 2017. Improvements in dissolved oxygen and the health of aquatic life that are not fish were cited. 

ν Cedar Creek branch: D-plus, a big drop from a B-minus due to increased cloudiness of water and bacteria, likely due to heavy rainfall and runoff.

ν Menomonee River watershed: D-minus, a drop from a D-plus, due to rising levels of bacteria and road salt. Tests at storm water outfalls suggest contamination from sewage flowing into the river, due to failing infrastructure.

ν Kinnickinnic River watershed: D-minus, down from a D. The lowest water quality grade in the basin. Much of the river is encased in concrete channels. 

ν Milwaukee River estuary, through which all water from the basin flows: D-plus, down from a C-plus due to increased turbidity, phosphorus and bacteria.

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