This Ambitious Plan to Clean Milwaukee’s Rivers Could Make Them Swimmable

The next stage in the revival of Milwaukee’s rivers aims much higher than being a nice setting for a lunch date or an afternoon of paddling.

As the Laurentide Ice Sheet slowly receded more than 10,000 years ago, it revealed the rivers that empty into Lake Michigan at what is now known as Milwaukee. The spot would soon become a hub of human activity and commerce, from Native Americans who enjoyed its bounty of fish, wild rice and game, to European immigrants who harnessed the rivers to build their 20th century “machine shop of the world.”

Reeds, trees and wildlife lining the banks were replaced by tanneries, breweries, foundries and factories. Toxic chemicals, discarded animal hides, meatpacking offal and other waste were dumped into the connected Milwaukee, Menomonee and Kinnickinnic rivers with abandon, not to mention municipal sewage.

Today, leaders envision sparkling-clean rivers once again teeming with fish and birds, as well as swimmers and kayakers, and people strolling the banks. The rivers’ reality today is perhaps closer to that vision than to the heavy-industry days of yore; people do indeed ramble along the RiverWalk, paddle kayaks and eat at riverside restaurants.



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But hardly anybody wants to swim in the rivers, and eating fish caught there is risky. For a real transformation, the legacy of all that past industry must be addressed: the riverbeds still contain millions of cubic yards of sediment contaminated with toxic compounds and heavy metals.

Now a coalition of government entities and advocates is launching an ambitious project to remove that sediment, then restore habitat, improve public access and spur commercial and residential development.

The Milwaukee River estuary – all three of the city’s rivers and its harbor – is designated one of 43 “Areas of Concern” around the Great Lakes, all eligible for federal dollars for sediment cleanup and habitat restoration. The Milwaukee cleanup is among the most ambitious of any of those projects undertaken or proposed, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that oversees the program.

In all, it would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, take decades and require collaboration between multiple agencies. It would entail raising enough private, local and state funds to trigger the release of federal money, through an intricate structure wherein local spending can leverage nearly twice the amount of federal matching funds.

Lilith Fowler, executive director of Harbor District Inc., is among those who think the project could be transformational for the city, completing the transition of the rivers from liabilities into assets.

“People have such a natural and undeniable response to moving water, and it is sad to see that relationship broken through our own actions,” she says. “It would be great to get to the point where you can tell people about a swimming race planned for the river and their response is not ‘Ewww’ but rather ‘Sign me up!’”

One aspect of Milwaukee’s industrial legacy sits at the bottom of its rivers: toxic chemicals trapped in the riverbed. Photo by Chris Kessler




“MAKE NO LITTLE PLANS; they have no magic to stir men’s blood.” Thus goes the inspirational phrase widely attributed to legendary urban planner Daniel Burnham as he laid out a vision for Chicago. But the saying could also be used to describe the lofty ambitions and leap of faith being taken by leaders and staffers pushing ahead with the AOC cleanup plan.

In the Milwaukee office of the state Department of Natural Resources in Harambee, above a lobby filled with taxidermied animals, Brennan Dow flips through a dizzying array of maps and charts laying out the various stages of the Milwaukee River Estuary AOC proposal.

Dow, the coordinator for the estuary, flashes a smile that appears both mischievous and incredulous when describing the massive scope of the project – the money that still needs to be raised, the approvals that need to be secured, the countless steps that still need to be taken.

Mayor Tom Barrett and others describe it as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to do something that will reshape the city for future generations. Never mind that city, county, state and federal administrations and legislatures may change multiple times during the many years it will take to complete the project, and countless obstacles large and small will likely arise.

A natural question: Is all the work really worth it?

“The same questions could have been asked 40 years ago when the Deep Tunnel was planned and constructed,” says Jeff Fleming, a spokesman for cleanup partner Port Milwaukee, referencing the billion-dollar wastewater project. “Clearly, that project has had significant benefits in reducing combined sewer overflows – and clearing the way for hundreds of millions of dollars in development along the river. The same question could, again, have been asked about removing the North Avenue Dam more than 20 years ago. That has dramatically improved wildlife habitat.”

Fleming pointed to a large fish his son caught in that part of the river and said, “Perhaps in the future, people fishing could actually eat the fish they catch in the Milwaukee River.”

So far, the EPA has approved a $29.3 million slice of the cleanup plan, including about $19 million in federal funds spurred by $10 million in nonfederal funds under the matching arrangement. For the latter, the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District is spending about $6.5 million to remove PCB-contaminated sediment from nearly 2 miles of sewer along the Milwaukee River in Riverwest. And We Energies is spending an estimated $3.5 million to clean up the former Solvay coke and gas plant site in the inner harbor, which it bought in 2017.

The $19 million in federal funds covers the development of a sediment removal and remediation plan for about 13 miles of the three rivers: the Milwaukee River from Estabrook Park through Downtown; the Menomonee River downstream of 25th Street including the South Menomonee Canal; the lower Kinnickinnic River and inner harbor area and part of the outer harbor along the shoreline. The plan also involves removing soil from the riverbanks north of the North Avenue dam, since before the dam’s partial dismantling that area was covered with water that contaminated what is now green space along the banks.

Already, sediment cores have been drilled throughout most of this area showing where contamination seems to be heaviest. The many hot spots cluster near former tanneries and other industry, and in the areas where the rivers widen and slow, allowing more deposition of contaminants. The stretch that appears to be most heavily contaminated, Dow says, is the Milwaukee River from the former site of the Estabrook Dam to the confluence with the Menomonee.

Now engineers need to figure out exactly how to dredge the affected areas, likely with hydraulic dredging that involves essentially vacuuming up the river bottom. They also need to study the riverbed and infrastructure around each dredging site.


There’s a lot of nasty stuff in the sediment of Milwaukee’s rivers, mostly left over from many years ago when there were few regulations on heavy industry. These chemicals and compounds are a different type of pollution than bacteria from sewage releases or bird droppings, which can make you sick but disappear relatively quickly. The primary contaminants in the sediment of the Milwaukee River Estuary are PCBs, PAHs and heavy metals. There’s really no way to get rid of them other than dredging. While they are stored in the sediment, they also dissolve into the water and accumulate in fish, with higher concentrations the higher up an organism is on the food chain. These contaminants can harm aquatic organisms and the ecosystem on the bottom of the river, and hurt humans who eat the fish or have enough exposure to the water.

PCBs: Polychlorinated biphenyls are man-made chemicals composed of carbon, hydrogen and chlorine atoms. Before they were banned in 1979, they were widely used in the manufacturing of plastics, dyes, rubber and paper products, paints, electrical equipment and more. PCBs are considered probable carcinogens and are also known to cause a range of other harmful effects on the reproductive, immune, endocrine, respiratory and neurological systems.

PAHs: Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are a natural component of coal, oil and gas that get into rivers when petroleum products are dumped, spill or run off into the water, or when these fuels are burned nearby – especially at manufactured gas plants like the one that used to operate on the Kinnickinnic. PAHs are known carcinogens and are linked to kidney and liver damage with long-term exposure. Short-term exposure can cause eye irritation and gastrointestinal symptoms.

Heavy metals: Heavy metals including arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead and mercury are often found in the sediment of industrial waterways since they are byproducts of manufacturing. Chromium can come from tanneries, steel mills and chrome-plating; lead and cadmium from batteries; and arsenic from wood preservation, among other sources. Heavy metals are linked to neurological problems and organ damage, especially in children.

“It’s a very urban area. You have a lot of utilities, a lot of bridges, a lot of complications with very old bulkhead walls or steel sheet pile walls,” says Dow. “If you were to remove any contaminant material right next to those areas, if you don’t do it properly, they have potential to collapse, which wouldn’t be good right next to a large building.”

The money for the actual dredging still needs to be raised through the non-federal/federal match. Dow and other leaders describe it as essentially a competition with other AOCs attempting to tap the limited federal funds available each year under a 2009 law called the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. The initiative is usually funded to the tune of about $300 million, with about a third of that spent on sediment cleanup projects.

Great Lakes advocates happily note that Great Lakes cleanup and restoration programs have long enjoyed bipartisan support, and this year Congress overruled the Trump administration’s efforts to cut Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funds.

EPA Region 5 Administrator Kurt Thiede explains that while no future funding is guaranteed, the Milwaukee River Estuary project is among 10 AOCs that the agency has deemed a priority. “The Milwaukee River Estuary is a very significant project,” he says. “It’s complex. It’s probably one of the more broad and far-reaching (AOC) projects we’ve done.”

Apartments, condos and the RiverWalk now line the Milwaukee River near the sit of the old A.F. Gallun tannery. Tanneries were among old Milwaukee’s worst polluters. Photo by Chris Kessler




ONE LINCHPIN in the whole project’s success: A relatively affordable place to store the dredged sediment

The mix of water and muck will be allowed to settle so water can be siphoned off, treated and returned to the rivers, while the sediment will be dried. The most toxic sediment will be sent to a special, federally approved landfill. While it’s not clear where it would go, there are no such landfills in Wisconsin.

Project leaders want to use the remaining sediment to fill in a 42-acre stretch of the lake just off the shore of Jones Island, in a collection of impermeable cells welded or grouted together. Creating this new storage facility would require various permits and approvals, with a public process likely to start in coming months. It would resemble and be adjacent to an existing confined disposal facility on Jones Island, where sediment from navigational dredging is stored.

While using contaminated sediment to essentially fill in the lake might sound like a dicey proposal, environmental advocates – like Jennifer Breceda, executive director of the advocacy group Milwaukee Riverkeeper – support the plan, since they say it should have no harmful effects and will allow the larger sediment cleanup to move forward. Breceda emphasized that the sediment is not actually going in the lake and won’t contact the water. She says it’s the best option because it’s “the most cost-effective and efficient way to manage the contaminated sediments, with the least carbon impact.”

If storing the sediment off Jones Island doesn’t work out, it will have to be trucked to a landfill, likely in Michigan. That would add more than $100 million to the project’s cost and cause massive truck traffic and carbon dioxide emissions, project leaders say. The extra cost and logistical complications – a parade of trucks moving through the city for months or years – might make the entire project unworkable.

Perhaps ironically, federal funds can pay for the estimated $100 million needed to truck out the sediment, but not for constructing a new holding facility in Milwaukee, which would cost an estimated $65 million to $90 million. So local and state leaders need to figure out how to raise the funds for a local facility, if it gets the necessary approvals.

Port director Adam Schlicht says the local disposal facility would not only be the cheapest and most environmentally friendly option, it would benefit the port and the public in the future once it is capped and turned into usable land. Creating more land in the lake is the only way the port will secure space for additional operations to serve cruise and cargo ships, he notes. And the facility would provide public lake access that doesn’t currently exist right in that area.

“We’re a city built on water, the capital of the freshwater coast,” Schlicht says. “Part of what makes us such a good place to live, work and play is our connection to fresh water.”

Industry once lined the banks of Menomonee River. Photo by Chris Kessler




THE ELBOW IN THE Kinnickinnic River north of Becher Street and west of First Street was not so long ago a mucky, smelly stretch curling around a largely empty, post-industrial parcel of land.

Today, the water is pleasant-looking and cleaner, since contaminated sediment was removed from a 2,000-foot-long, 200-foot-wide area. About two-thirds of the $23 million cost was paid by the federal government, and one-third by the state, under the matching arrangement.

And now the construction company Michels is building a $100 million complex on the lot nestled in the river’s bend, including a 400-employee office, commercial spaces, residences, a hotel and a new RiverWalk segment.

A mile northeast, the former site of the Solvay coke and gas plant is a desolate, once desperately polluted parcel. But owner We Energies is cleaning it up as part of the AOC project and selling the site to Komatsu Mining for its new North American corporate headquarters.

The influx of new employees and residents is bound to spark new restaurants and bars in the Harbor District – like the nearby Twisted Path distillery that opened in 2014 – Breceda and Fowler say.

Such development could seemingly happen even with contaminated sediment lurking below the river waters. But as the city is poised for a renaissance of its once-industrial waterways, advocates say, doesn’t it make sense to root out the contamination of the past and offer a truly fresh start?

Advocates often cite a 2007 Brookings Institution study that found every dollar invested in restoring the Great Lakes sparks a $2-$3 return, in part through making an area more attractive to businesses and workers. “If we had toxic mold behind our walls, would we paint over it or fix it?” Breceda asks. “There are so many projects we want to do, but we need to do this first.”  

A fisherman dips a line in the Milwaukee River at Estabrook Park. Photo by Chris Kessler




ONCE THE LOWER REACHES of the three rivers are clean and inviting, the project leaders plan to move on to the inner and outer harbor.

Sediment testing there – fully paid for by the federal government – still needs to be done, so it’s not yet clear how much and what type of contamination exists in the harbor. “There will be a fair amount of boats out there with big long rods collecting these samples,” says Dow. “We’re hoping to know by year’s end pretty well what’s out there.”

Meanwhile, removing sediment isn’t the be-all and end-all of the Milwaukee River Estuary project. It also encompasses lots of other work – some completed, some planned.

Wedged between Barnacle Bud’s waterfront bar and the hulking Nidera grain elevator, for example, is the last six-acre remnant of the once-sprawling Grand Trunk wetland. Before development it was replete with wild rice, mink and otters, but its fenced-off remainder is now a “scroungy, weed-filled” patch, as Breceda describes it. The AOC project aims to bring the wetland closer to its former glory, making it a destination for spawning pike, birdwatchers, kayakers and hikers. The wetland will also help naturally filter stormwater before it runs into the Kinnickinnic. More than $3 million in federal money and about $2 million in funds from the state, city, county and other entities, including private foundations, has been secured for the project.

Another part of the AOC project is a proposal to move South Shore Beach, which is plagued by frequent beach closings and high bacteria levels. This is not because of legacy contamination, but rather bacteria from the countless Canada geese and gulls that call the beach home and stagnation caused by the breakwater.

Under the proposal, the entire beach – sand and designated swimming area – would be moved south to a rocky area with much better water quality. The current beach area would be bolstered with stone revetments along the shore, then turned into a large lawn and patch of native prairie plants with a widened trail running along it.

“People don’t necessarily love change of any sort,” says Fowler. “Something like moving your beach is a pretty huge deal. Removing a dam is a big deal. It will put a cramp in people’s style for a while.”

“That’s why we need to talk about it loud and proud, that it’s for the greater good,” adds Breceda.

The first significant test of public interest in and support for the AOC plan will likely come this spring or summer through public comment periods and public meetings about the proposed sediment disposal site at Jones Island.


The legacy of industry looms large in the Midwest, and it affects few of the region’s natural resources as much as the Great Lakes.

In 1987, the binational Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement identified 43 Areas of Concern, or AOCs, across the Great Lakes; 31 of them in the U.S. and the rest in Canada. Each one was evaluated regarding whether 14 “beneficial uses” were impaired. Beneficial use impairments include: when the water can’t be used for swimming; when fish taste bad or are unsafe to eat; when deformities and tumors are likely in fish; when beaches are closed; when navigational dredging is inhibited because the sediment is too polluted; and when algae chokes the water.

The Milwaukee River Estuary AOC has 11 of the possible 14 beneficial use impairments, and it’s one of the largest sediment cleanups ever proposed through the AOC program, according to the EPA.

So far, 4.3 million cubic yards of sediment has been removed from 24 Areas of Concern. The Milwaukee River Estuary cleanup would add as much as 2 million cubic yards to that total.

The 2009 Great Lakes Restoration Initiative provides funds for AOCs, including for sediment remediation, habitat restoration and addressing water pollution. Sediment remediation calls for a 35%-65% non-federal/federal match, meaning every $35 spent by private, local, county or state parties can trigger $65 in federal spending.

Of Wisconsin’s five AOCs, two of them – Sheboygan and the Lower Menominee River, which flows into Green Bay at Marinette – have completed their cleanups.

In the Fox River and lower Green Bay AOC, the cleanup has been ongoing since the late 1980s. There, as in Milwaukee, sediment contaminated by industry had to be dredged. In Green Bay, much of the pollution consisted of PCBs from upstream paper mills making carbonless copy paper and recycled paper products. Green Bay also suffers from nutrient pollution from fertilizer running off area fields. 

Key companies that caused the Green Bay sediment contamination are still around and have footed much of the cleanup bill and are on the hook for more. The EPA says the total cleanup costs will exceed $1 billion. By contrast, most of the contamination in Milwaukee was caused by long-gone companies that can’t be tapped for funds.

“I think there will be exciting things happening in the AOC world in Wisconsin this year,” says EPA Region 5 Administrator Kurt Thiede, noting that the Lower Menominee is about to begin the process of being declared complete and delisted. “Hopefully there will be great celebration where we can look at that ending, while in Milwaukee we’re looking at the beginning of what will be an eventual success.”

Barrett is hopeful that the public will buy into the proposal and that government officials and other stakeholders will continue to push for it.

“We need to keep moving forward so there will be swimming and fishing in these rivers, where someone’s grandkids can swim across the river or catch a good fish,” Barrett said. “It’s going to take a commitment. The rivers are always flowing – it’s important the momentum continues to flow as well.”

Chicago-based journalist Kari Lydersen wrote “The Great Lakes Now” in the November 2018 issue.

This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s May issue. 

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