Urban River Restoration Projects Create Healthier Neighborhoods

A Milwaukee Watershed Story

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Ben Gramling is director of the environmental health department at Sixteenth Street Community Health Center in Milwaukee, Wis., and serves on the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District Commission.

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Posted: Wednesday, June 27, 2012 11:31 am | Updated: 11:12 am, Thu May 15, 2014.

MILWAUKEE, Wis. -- Community leaders in Milwaukee are discovering that the health of an urban waterway can have a direct impact on the health of the people who live along its banks.

“Water is a powerful draw for investment, adds value, and serves as a backbone to a healthy and vibrant community,” said Ben Gramling, director of the environmental health department at the Sixteenth Street Community Health Center located on Milwaukee's culturally diverse south side. But, he said, when urban streams are turned into straight concrete channels that become virtual fire hoses during a heavy rain, they become a threat to the health of everything that lives in or around the ragging torrent. Flood damaged and moldy homes, water-borne illnesses, even drownings are a frequent reality in such places.

But, it doesn't have to be that way, as Gramling and the people of Milwaukee have learned.

In keeping with its mission to combat the “complex economic, environmental and socio-political factors that contribute to poor health and decreased quality of life for Milwaukee’s south-side residents,” the SSCHC became actively involved in a community-wide effort to rehabilitate and revitalize the urban watersheds of the Menomonee and Kinnickinnic rivers, which run through many of Milwaukee’s most challenged residential neighborhoods and its aging industrial sector.

Restoration work on the Menomonee River is well under way. Along many urban stretches, the concrete channels have been replaced with natural looking meanders where rocks are positioned to recreate the sorts of pools and riffles the fish that once thrived there require. The restoration of stream banks have created attractive amenities where people want to spend time. With the people have come new bike paths, picnic areas and playgrounds. Abandoned shopping carts and furtive gang activity went the way of the heavy vegetation that invited them in.

Now the community has set its sights on the Kinnickinnic River, also known as the KK.

Gramling, who also serves on the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District Commission (MMSD), led a tour of the Kinnickinnic River watershed through Milwaukee in late April. He pointed out the steep concrete banks that channelize the river and areas where thick vegetation has grown into what amounts to a green wall between the residents and their river.

The KK is the most urbanized watershed in the Milwaukee area, with 93 percent of the watershed devoted to urban use. Approximately 152,000 people live within its boundaries. Those concrete channels, some built as early as the 1940s, restrict the river so much that spring floods overflow its banks, leaving behind mud and mold in homes along the path. The SSCHC entered into conversations with the sewerage district to see what could be done. MMSD is a regional government agency that provides water reclamation and flood management services in the Greater Milwaukee Area.

Dave Fowler, a senior project manager with MMSD, was on the KK watershed tour. He said his organization had studied the river and determined that rehabilitation alone would not cure the flooding problem. MMSD studies determined that the best course of action was to widen a stretch of the river channel that flowed through a particularly dense urban neighborhood. To do that, approximately 80 homes would need to be removed and their residents relocated.

Home removal to accommodate river habitat improvement and flood control had been done in Milwaukee before, and was one of the solutions that led to the attractively rehabbed Menominee. Following the model of what had worked there, MMSD, the SSCHC, and other partners sought community input to initiate this major upheaval to the neighborhood. Representatives from governmental entities, the Wisconsin Division of Natural Resources, area non-profits, and community members formed a technical review committee. Starting in 2008, this group spent a year holding neighborhood meetings, distributing surveys and even going door to door to get community input. They released a report of their findings in 2009.

One focus of the neighborhood surveys explored the likelihood that homes would need to be removed to avoid flooding. Residents were told that people affected would have to move, but would be paid for their homes. They could expect that up to 80 homes would be gone if the only goal was to avoid flooding. But if another goal was to add additional green space, more might be removed. Sixty-seven percent surveyed indicated they preferred to remove the minimum number of homes, while 23 percent favored removing more homes if green space was used for bike paths, fishing areas and community gardens.

Also to develop the plan, residents were asked to describe what they liked about their neighborhood and what could be improved. Residents spoke of how they’d like to see the neighborhood change in addition to river rehabilitation, including improving housing, supporting local businesses and sustainability initiatives, and creating better parks. Residents indicated they valued their neighborhood’s ethnic diversity and the character of the housing, and wanted to enhance existing green space. They felt the biggest challenges were density, poverty and the perception that theirs was a high-crime neighborhood.

The second phase was to develop river rehabilitation and neighborhood design alternatives based on residents’ input during phase one. The planning team evaluated various river alignment scenarios and considered the effect of each one on elements participants said they wanted to retain or further develop. The third phase was to present the final but always evolving neighborhood plan, particularly to show which properties would be acquired by MMSD and razed to accommodate the widened and rehabilitated river corridor.

Hey and Associates, an engineering firm in Brookfield, Wis., worked with MMSD to develop a series of alternatives for flood management along this stretch of the river. “Do nothing” was the first approach to consider, but even doing nothing would still have meant doing something. For instance, MMSD would have to make incremental repairs to the deteriorating concrete channel, but the Wisconsin DNR would not let them replace concrete with more concrete. So the “do nothing” option was not really an option, according to Fowler.

The firm also studied temporary upstream storage of heavy rain, allowing water to steep slowly through the KK channel rather than blasting through all at once. However, they determined that not enough storage was actually available to make that plan work. They also analyzed diverting the water through a high-flow pipe, but the costs of doing so were prohibitive. They also considered a 60-foot wide, rectangular concrete channel with 9-foot walls that would carry more water but still not lessen the fire hose effect or provide any habitat improvement or amenities. Three alternatives for widening and deepening were reviewed with variously shaped channels. Finally, the plan for a trapezoidal channel was recommended and is under way.

In this trapezoidal configuration, a “compound channel” with riffles and pools will be effective whether the water is at a low level or is high from heavy rainfall. Instead of concrete, rock will shape the channel, which will be about three feet deep and range from 65 to 85 feet in width. The banks will slope gently and be anchored by grass, shrubs or trees as needed. At certain stretches along the river, pedestrian bridges will be removed and a sewer crossing reconstructed.

The engineering firm estimates the price tag for bringing flood control and enhanced safety to the KK will be about $61 million, which includes project implementation, inspection, and periodic maintenance for years into the future. MMSD is a taxing authority with a budget for capital projects derived from property taxes, which will pay for the work, including acquisition of the homes. Federal flood recovery dollars will also fund some of the work.

In order for this project to succeed, several entities in the area will have to work together. For instance, the Canadian Pacific Railway owns the railroad corridor that is parallel with the river. While no major structural work will affect the line, transition from the concrete to the rock and placement of softer banks near bridges over the river will need to be coordinated with them.

A significant portion of the project area is owned by Milwaukee County, which operates parkland throughout the city. They will be involved in determining how their existing sports fields and other structures will fit into the new plans. Also, the City of Milwaukee will have a say in how storm water outfalls will be adjusted or reconstructed, not to mention reconstruction of bridges and sewer crossings. Work must be coordinated to avoid an increased risk of flooding while construction is under way. And naturally, property owners in the project path will have to cooperate with the sale and removal of their homes.

Fowler said MMSD is working with residents to find comparable housing wherever they would like to be, and that many of them prefer to remain in this south-side metropolitan area. A few dozen homes have already been purchased and razed. Fowler said the district would prefer not to exercise eminent domain, although it could do so. Meanwhile, the purchase price of each home is being negotiated one at a time. No timeline has been established to complete this process. Until this phase is completed, though, residents still face the risk of flooding and all the safety risks associated with it.

Denny Caneff, executive director of River Alliance of Wisconsin, was also on the KK watershed tour. His organization has advocated for restoring the health of urban rivers, thus the health of urban residents, for many years. He has long been aware of the ways urban rivers have been treated. “Cities were developed because the river was there. People wanted to take advantage of the river by taking water out and flushing waste downstream.” Then when the rivers became too polluted, communities “turned their backs and didn’t want to deal with the waste,” he said.

In spite of the improvements to the Milwaukee and Menominee rivers, and plans for the KK, Caneff isn’t predicting miracles. “We can’t make them back into natural waterways: they are in cities. But they can mimic natural systems and be part of the city’s amenities.”

Now the KK is on track to be an amenity and a positive contribution to the environmental health of residents. Over the next few years they’ll have a river greenway featuring bike trails and paths along a river containing proper habitat for aquatic life. They’ll have safer crosswalks, lighting, benches overlooking the river, and ways to capture and treat storm water runoff that work properly. They’ll have community garden plots along the river where people can grow their own fresh food. The health of the river and of the residents will continue to be bound together, as they have been since the time this city developed along the KK’s banks.

Some support for this story was provided by the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources.

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