Program aims to inspire corps of river caretakers

Riveredge initiative seeks to highlight joys of life on the Milwaukee River, enlist help to restore waterway

A TRAY OF plants used to vegetate the banks of the Milwaukee River was carried by Matt Smith, Riveredge’s land manager, during a river festival held in Newburg last year as part of the Community River Program. The program is expanding this year to include the villages of Saukville and Grafton. Press file photo
Ozaukee Press staff

Last summer, Riveredge Nature Center in the Town of Saukville tried a new approach to cleaning up the Milwaukee River.

Instead of just talks and educational programs, the center invited people to kayak, fish and hike in and along the river. It held a river festival in Newburg, with family-friendly activities such as crayfish races.

And, of course, it offered activities such as riverbank planting to show residents how to help the river that runs through the community.

“You need to love it. You need to know it, and by creating a passion for it, you develop a sense of responsibility for it,” said Mandie Zopp, Riveredge’s director of research and conservation. “That will inspire you to take actions that can change the river.

“We want to try and inspire community residents to create a minor-scale change that will, in the long run, have a major-scale difference.”

This year, Riveredge has expanded its Community River Program to include the villages of Saukville and Grafton, and it will kick off the programming with a town hall meeting at 6 p.m. Wednesday, May 30, at Riveredge. 

The meeting is intended to garner ideas from residents, officials, businesses and anyone else who’s interested on how to improve the health of the Milwaukee River.

For decades, it’s been clear that the river needs help. Milwaukee Riverkeepers gave the river a grade of D+, down from a C- the previous year, Zopp said.

That’s an overall grade, Zopp said, noting it is worst in Milwaukee and is about a B in the area near Riveredge, although much of the watershed has poor waster quality.

But things that happen upstream, in places like Ozaukee County, affect the river downstream.

In Ozaukee County, efforts to improve the water quality began in the 1980s, primarily through programs aimed at farmers, Andy Holschbach, Ozaukee County’s director of land and water management, said. 

“I hear from the owners of property along the Milwaukee River that the water quality is improving,” Holschbach said. “The water used to be so muddy, but now you can see the bottom. There are some fish.

“We have a long way to go, but we’re making progress.”

Benjamin Benninghoff, a Department of Natural Resources runoff management field supervisor who serves on the Community River Program steering committee, said Riveredge’s approach is unique, and it has the potential to make a large impact.

“It’s hard to act if you don’t know something is there,” he said, and the program lets people know what’s happening in their community. “It’s a small step, but I think it’s an important one. It engages the people who are there in the community to help us solve the problem, to create a healthy river.”

Zopp said the Community Rivers Program was a reaction to the Riverkeepers grade, noting Riveredge is centrally located in the Milwaukee River watershed.

“We wanted to get people involved, to be water stewards,” she said.  “The Milwaukee River runs through all our communities, but a lot of people don’t connect the aesthetics of the river to healing the river.

“We do so much with water quality here at Riveredge, it’s a niche for us.”

Riveredge is founded on the idea that making an intimate connection with something is the best way to create a sense of ownership and ultimately responsibility for something, Zopp said, and its staff decided to use that philosophy in creating a way to improve the health of the river.

The Community Rivers Program takes a three-pronged approach to help transform a community’s relationship with the river —one that involves inspiring people and nurturing their connection with the river through activities, educating them through workshops and classes on topics such as native landscaping, land management and the use of rain barrels and rain gardens, and engaging them in activities that make a difference, everything from storm drain stenciling programs to river clean ups.

Riveredge’s land manager, Matt Smith, will offer on site consultations for people in the three participating communities and offer ways to limit the impact on the river.

The program started small last year, she said, encompassing the Village of Newburg and offering 10 programs for residents and engaging about 30% of the population. 

This year, it’s expanding to the villages of Saukville and Grafton, where programs will include such things as a river cleanup, family fishing opportunities, kayaking, riverbank planting events and a crawfish catch and boil potluck.

Eventually, Zopp said, they want to reach all communities along the river.

The effort is being funded through a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and it recently won a 2018 Watershed Champions award from the Southeastern Wisconsin Watersheds Trust.

While it’s too early to say what impact the program may have on the Milwaukee River, Riveredge is working on a way to try and quantify this.

But no matter what, Zopp said, it’s sure to help as work continues to heal the Milwaukee River.

“We want to make a difference, and we want to help residents make a difference,” she said.

“They really have to be part of the conversation. They have to feel an ownership and responsibility to the land and the river. And we think this will help them make the connections they need.”


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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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Port Washington, WI 53074
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