conley6.gif (2529 bytes)


A River Reimagined


August 2017



Twenty years after the North Avenue Dam’s removal, conservationists look back on what worked in restoring the Milwaukee River and its surrounding green space, and  why engaging the community in these efforts is more important than ever.

It’s 7 a.m. on a sunny June morning, and Jordan Leitner is inspecting his second catch of the day: a smallmouth bass plucked from the Milwaukee River. “They’re so beautiful,” he says, tossing the fish back into the water. “I can’t imagine ever slicing into them.”

Leitner, who works at a law firm by day and lives in Riverwest, says he never keeps — or eats — the fish he catches. A northern Wisconsin native, he’s spent the better part of his life fishing, but he first took up fly-fishing just over two years ago. The sport is now one he practices weekly. “This is my little oasis in the city,” Leitner adds, referring to an area of the Milwaukee River near Kletzsch Park in Glendale. “I can jump in my waders after work, hit the river, and I’m on fish in 20 minutes or less.”

Prior to the North Avenue Dam’s removal in 1997, catching smallmouth bass in the very spot Leitner stands was much less probable. “In August of 1990, we got reports of a big fish kill on the North Avenue impoundment,” recalls biologist Will Wawrzyn, who retired from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) two years ago after more than 35 years of service. “It was eye-opening. There were thousands of fish dead.” After surveying the area, Wawrzyn found only eight species of fish — many of which were considered tolerant of what he calls “degraded environmental quality,” such as carp. 

The fish kill, he continues, was largely linked to the contaminated sediment that had built up behind the North Avenue Dam. “There were about 750,000 cubic yards back there,” Wawrzyn says. “To give you an appreciation for just how much that is, a typical tri-axle dump truck holds about 10 cubic yards.” To resolve the issue, Wawrzyn and the WDNR conducted a feasibility study to examine various solutions, from dam removal to reconstruction. Its findings, published in a 1995 report, suggested that removing the North Avenue Dam was the most suitable option. Work on its removal began the following year.

“Over time, we went from about eight species — those that are less favored and indicative of poor water quality and poor environmental quality — to, at last count, more than 30 species of native fish,” Wawrzyn says, noting that the WDNR surveys the Milwaukee River’s fish habitat biannually. “Those fish have come from a number of places — from refuges upstream, but also from Lake Michigan.”

The ecological and environmental benefits of dam removal include a resurgence of aquatic life, improved water quality, and an increase in oxygen levels, but perhaps the most powerful benefit is that of reconnecting communities of people. “The river has historically been a dividing line in the city,” says Kimberly Gleffe, executive director of the River Revitalization Foundation (RRF), an urban land trust formed in 1994 in Milwaukee. “The west bank is more diverse, but also more economically challenged. The east side is not as diverse (and) more wealthy.”

“When the dams go up, they create an impenetrable barrier,” explains Timothy Ehlinger, director of the W.C. Kohler Partnership for Sustainability & Peacebuilding at UW-Milwaukee. “In many cases, these barriers have reinforced racial and cultural divides. … Some people are afraid of that reconnection. People sometimes feel safer being disconnected, and using the river as way to disconnect rather than as a way to connect.”

Removing the North Avenue Dam 20 years ago was, as expected, a controversial move, but the municipal support that followed, which included the construction of a pedestrian bridge to connect the west and east banks in 2005, was a significant step toward reconnecting area residents — both to each other and to the river itself. “Instead of the river being a dividing line, it’s now seen as a community resource,” adds Gleffe.

Passed in 2010, legislation to protect and restore the Milwaukee River Greenway also provided a long-term vision for how the area would attract recreational visitors, such as hikers, kayakers and fishermen. “When you’re on the water or on the trails, there are very few visual intrusions,” notes Kimberly Gleffe, executive  director of the River Revitalization Foundation. “You don’t even know you’re in the city. That’s the beauty of it — that we have these places right on the river that look like this.”

The Last 20 Years: Restoring the ‘Emerald Necklace’

How the Milwaukee River became so polluted and laced with toxicity is a complex and highly debated issue, but some credit the North Avenue Dam’s removal with sparking a newfound commitment to restoring and revitalizing the river and its surrounding green space. Ehlinger points to other events, such as the Cryptosporidiosis outbreak in 1993 and the flash floods of the late ’90s, as contributing factors too. “To some extent, we became physically disconnected from the river,” he says. “Getting people back to the river forced them to realize, ‘Oh my gosh, we’ve got a problem. Let’s try to address it.’ Sometimes things have to get really bad for things to get better.”

Together with hundreds of volunteers each year, Gleffe and her team work to restore parcels along the 800-plus-acre Milwaukee River Greenway, which stretches from North Avenue to Silver Spring Drive. The parkland, Gleffe says, works as a buffer between the natural and built environments, shielding the river from harmful runoff. “All of these native, deep-rooted plants catch the stormwater from parking lots and roofs and keep it from going into the river,” she explains. “This reduces pollutant loading and sediment loading, leading to cleaner waters.”

RRF removes 357,000-plus pounds of invasive plants annually and has planted more than 10,000 native species since its inception.

Engaging the local community in these restoration efforts is arguably the most important piece of the puzzle, and a trend Ehlinger, who was trained as an evolutionary ecologist, has studied extensively over the last 26 years. After overseeing numerous projects worldwide, he identified a clear asset to their success and long-term sustainability. “I recognized that it was less and less about the quality of the science, but more about the quality of working with the people who cared about (the watershed) or who needed to reconnect,” Ehlinger explains. “And then I realized that, when they come together — when you’re able to connect with the people at the same time that you’re connecting with the environmental restoration, the projects take on a life of their own. It’s more about healing that connection and cultivating a culture of caring and coexistence with the river rather than just trying to fix the river.” 

Nonprofits like RRF and Milwaukee Riverkeeper use this methodology to guide their work. “People need to have a connection to a resource in order to want to protect it,” says Milwaukee Riverkeeper Executive Director Jennifer Bolger Breceda. The nonprofit hosts a river cleanup event every spring, and more than 4,000 volunteers participate. “It’s helpful to have people come out, clean up, and then they get energized,” Bolger Breceda says. “They want to learn more. They want to do more. They’ve done something to improve their community and connect with their neighbors.”

At the 22nd annual cleanup last April, Milwaukee Riverkeeper partnered with the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) to launch an Adopt a River program. “It takes the energy and the excitement after the cleanup, capitalizes on it, and gives people an opportunity to come back to the river in the summer and the fall and clean up that section — or a new section — of the river,” explains Bolger Breceda. She says any individual or group can adopt a portion of the river, and two cleanups per year are required. Milwaukee Riverkeeper provides the necessary education and training too.

The most progressive policy to take shape since the North Avenue Dam’s removal, however, is undeniably Greenseams, MMSD’s innovative flood management initiative. “When I started in 1998, we were creating a flood management program, and it was garnered toward all the development that would happen between then and the year 2020,” explains Kevin Shafer, MMSD’s executive director. “We then started saying, ‘Well, what happens in 2022? Or 2030?’ … We were spending about $300 million on just structural engineering and flood management work, but we knew there was going to be more water coming at us in the future if we didn’t try to look upstream.”

Enter Greenseams — a program in which MMSD voluntarily purchases at-risk land or easements within the flood plain. The agency made its first purchase in 2002 and has since acquired more than 3,400 acres of land. “We put a conservation easement on the land, and then we turn it over to municipalities, land trusts and nonprofit organizations, and they manage that land,” says Shafer. The easement protects the land from being covered in asphalt or concrete, therefore allowing the ground to naturally soak in the water. It also prevents homes from being built within the flood plain, adds Shafer.

Both RRF and Milwaukee Riverkeeper manage Greenseams land. “The land-water connection is really integrated here (in Milwaukee),” says Gleffe, adding that Greenseams’ land preservation component  also positively impacts water quality.


The Next 20 Years: finding new funding

The question of how federal environmental policy will affect local restoration efforts is omnipresent. The 2018 budget reduces the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget by 31 percent and eliminates funding for major programs, including the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI), entirely. A product of bipartisanship, GLRI was launched in 2010 to assist in protecting and restoring the Great Lakes — the largest system of freshwater in the world. Its approved action plan includes $300 million in annual funding between 2015 and 2019, and although GLRI is fully funded through the end of this year, 2018 will likely face funding challenges. 

“Cutting GLRI funding is devastating for the Great Lakes,” says Shafer. “It’s provided a wonderful resurgence for the habitat and for the health of the lakes.”

According to Gleffe, a grant RRF received from GLRI is allowing the nonprofit to do habitat restoration on 45 acres within the Milwaukee River Greenway. Bolger Breceda says current work on the Kinnickinnic River — one of the top 10 most impaired rivers in the country — is funded by GLRI, as was environmental restoration at Lincoln Creek.

“It’s sad that we’ve seen what impact that investment has made, and then to just stop it?” says Gleffe of the proposed budget cut. “It just means we have to be a lot more creative about how we allocate our resources and our funding sources to try to address these issues and do projects on a larger scale together, without relying on federal dollars.

“I’m not saying they shouldn’t be there,” she continues, “but if they’re not there, it makes us be more creative and work together collaboratively to try to leverage resources.”

Like Gleffe, Bolger Breceda is cautiously hopeful when discussing what the future holds. “There’s just a hunger for people to get involved and to understand what’s happening, on both sides of the aisle,” she says. “There’s maybe a bit of distrust in the policies and the leaders, and I think people want accountability. They want the public interest at the forefront of the decisions that are being made. We’ve seen an increase in people wanting to engage with our organization because of that.”

Despite the challenges that lie ahead, Ehlinger encourages communities to continue to discuss and recognize their shared interests. Creating a common aligning of incentives, rather than focusing on a position, is crucial, he adds. “Governance needs to be taken over more and more by the people who want the river, the watershed and the environment to be healthy and vibrant and vital,” Ehlinger says, noting that local nature centers are working to re-create a culture of connectedness with the river. “The beautiful thing about the Milwaukee (River) is now you have different people and groups along the river that see the river as something that’s going to outlive them. That’s going to be their legacy. There’s a sense that we’re stewarding a river for future generations.”

“We’re in a period of growth and connection with the community and accomplishing great things, but there are a lot of issues on the horizon,” concludes Bolger Breceda. “Now more than ever we need restoration so we can continue to improve.”

3 Ways to Engage with the Milwaukee River This Month

1. Volunteer. Ten hours of volunteer work with the River Revitalization Foundation earns you free canoe or kayak rentals from Kiwanis Landing, the Kiwanis Club of Milwaukee’s community boat launch in Turtle Park. Drop-in volunteer times are from 2 to 4 p.m. Mondays, 1 to 4 p.m. Fridays, and 9 a.m. to noon Saturdays. Go to riverrevitalization to learn more.

2. Get educated. Visit one of five educational centers located near or along the Milwaukee River to learn more about the watershed’s ecology in that area.

Discovery World: 500 N. Harbor Drive, (414) 765-9966,

Mequon Nature Preserve: 8200 W. County Line Road, Mequon, (262) 242-8055,

Riveredge Nature Center: 4458 County Road Y, Saukville, (262) 375-2715,

Schlitz Audubon Nature Center: 1111 E. Brown Deer Road, (414) 352-2880,

Urban Ecology Center: 1500 E. Park Place, (414) 964-8505,

3. Paddle upstream. Milwaukee Riverkeeper hosts paddling events throughout the summer, and on Monday, Aug. 7, the nonprofit will co-host its 12th annual Milky Moonlight Paddle with the River Alliance of Wisconsin. Participants will enjoy views of Milwaukee skyscrapers under a full moonlit sky. Register online at


This story ran in the August 2017 issue of: