For now, you can still see some of the concrete that until recently has lined much of Underwood Creek in Wauwatosa like a straitjacket for over forty years. The channel, once so smooth and straight I’ve seen skateboarders on it in dry weather, is pocked with holes and severely cracked. Jackhammers have been working their way downstream towards the confluence with the Menomonee River near North Avenue and the Menomonee River Parkway.
Upstream the work is further along. West of 102nd Street, where the creek is sandwiched between Fisher Parkway and a very active railroad line, all of the concrete has been removed and trucked away to be recycled. Bulldozers, excavators and earth movers have reshaped the stream bed, reintroducing meandering curves. Tons of rock have been laboriously deposited to stabilize the new channel and prevent erosion.
Oddly enough the incongruous sight of huge power shovels squatting in the streambed is a welcome one—a long overdue remediation of the outdated and discredited policy of “channelizing” rivers and streams. The idea behind pouring concrete into waterways, popular in the Milwaukee region in the 1960s, was to move stormwater quickly through neighborhoods in an attempt to minimize flooding.
Unfortunately for everyone, the solution became increasingly obsolete as the problem of flooding was exacerbated by unrelenting new development upstream from the channels. Until recent implementation of more effective stormwater management techniques and policies, new development has led to increased stormwater entering—and more frequently breaching—the channels.
Of course, pouring concrete into rivers has always been devastating to the rivers themselves—along with the fish, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and other wildlife that depend on healthy waterways and riparian habitats for their survival. The suffering of plants and animals in degraded river systems is accompanied by a diminished quality of life for the human communities that surround them. And so it has come to this, that we need—and desire—bulldozers in the creek to correct our past mistakes.
This project, which began in November 2016, will remove 4,400 linear feet of concrete between Mayfair Road and North Avenue. The work is being overseen by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in partnership with Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) and could be complete as early as this fall.
The current Underwood Creek project is part of a longer-term effort to address up-to-date stormwater issues, improve water quality, restore and naturalize the creek, increase fish passage and rehabilitate wildlife habitats. Another section of Underwood Creek just upstream from the new project was previously restored. There also are plans to undertake feasibility studies for channel removal on additional sections west of Mayfair Road.
MMSD has undertaken similar channel restoration projects on all three of Milwaukee’s major watersheds. These have included completed projects on Lincoln Creek and the Menomonee River as well as its huge ongoing Kinnickinnic River Project.
One of the more fascinating aspects of this work, at least for me, is how the normal flow of water in the stream is handled during demolition and restoration. If you peek through the passage beneath the railroad at Hansen Golf Course you may be startled to see a large black pipe suspended in the air across your field of vision. Although rain and snowmelt still fill the channel on occasion, this pipe, which snakes all the way alongside the creek, carries the normal dry-weather flow.
The best news I’ve heard yet about this project was from one of the construction workers at the site. “It’s already working,” he told me. “We’ve had to rescue half a dozen salmon that swam up and got stuck in here.”