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Natural Awakenings Milwaukee Magazine

How Local Leaders Are Meeting Challenges to Freshwater Conservation

Sep 30, 2021 08:30AM ● By Sheila Julson
Milwaukee, which sits on the mighty Lake Michigan and has the Milwaukee, Kinnickinnic and Menomonie rivers running through it, seems to be awash in freshwater. Yet many pollutants—including road salt, pharmaceuticals, plastic pollution, agricultural and lawn chemical runoff, and lead from paint and pipes in old homes—contaminate our waterways that spill into Lake Michigan, the area’s source of drinking water. But not all hope is lost. Below are just a few entities in Milwaukee that are working to promote public responsibility and stewardship of our city’s most precious natural resource.

Nonprofits Promote Ways to Protect Our Waters

Reflo states that its mission is “to catalyze sustainable water use, green infrastructure, and equitable water resource management”. They accomplish this through education, research and the implementation of water projects beneficial to local communities and individuals.

Their programs include Green & Healthy Schools, which supports green infrastructure projects at two Milwaukee Public Schools; Innovation & Placemaking, propelling urban green infrastructure; rainwater harvesting projects; and Milwaukee Water Stories, which uses storytelling, games and technology such as the interactive Milwaukee Community Map ( to curate map stories around the theme “Water & Community.”

Milwaukee Water Commons recognizes that Milwaukee is a model water hub of the future, but the majority of people in the community have not been included in water health conversations. The organization strives to forge a cross-city network fostering connection, collaboration and broad community leadership on behalf of our common waters.

Their six initiative areas are “blue-green jobs” which support responsible stewardship of water resources; water quality; drinking water; arts and culture; water education and recreation; and green infrastructure. The Water School Program, one of their flagship initiatives, brings together five community partners to encourage future water stewards through year-long commitments to the watersheds of the Milwaukee River Basin and Lake Michigan.

Milwaukee Riverkeeper is a multifaceted organization that advocates for swimmable, fishable rivers throughout the Milwaukee River basin. Their work consists of monitoring our waterways for baseline water quality, aesthetics, road salt, emerging contaminants, mussels and bacteria. In addition, they offer educational outreach to schools and the public. The group hosts a large annual river cleanup every year to coincide with Earth Day.

“In the Great Lakes Region, we often don’t think about water scarcity, as we have 20 percent of the world’s fresh surface water supply at our doorstep, and 95 percent of the United State’s fresh surface water supply. That said, even in our area, water pollution can still impact the quality of water and imperil drinking water supplies,” emphasizes Cheryl Nenn of Milwaukee Riverkeeper. She cites Waukesha and Madison as examples from our region where pollution from radium (mostly naturally occurring), coal ash and road salt adversely impacted the water supply. Researchers are also just beginning to understand the extent of PFAS, or “forever” chemicals, that are being found in water, sediment, air and agricultural soil.

Nenn points out that the Great Lakes Compact limits where Great Lakes water can be sent—only to straddling communities and communities in straddling counties of the Great Lakes Basin. “This Compact remains vitally important to protecting the Great Lakes and water supplies for future generations, but increasing drought in different parts of the country and increasing pollution put further stress on decision-makers—largely the Great Lakes governors and premiers—to keep Great Lakes water in the Great Lakes.”

To help reduce water pollution, Nenn recommends that people install rain barrels and rain gardens to soak rain water into the ground instead of sending it to storm drains that send pollutants to rivers. Minimize use of single-use plastic, fertilizers and pesticides that all find their way to our waterways. Use drop boxes to dispose of old medicines and pharmaceuticals (find out more at “We also encourage everyone to get involved in stream and community clean-ups to reduce the runoff of trash to area waterways.”

Respect Our Waters emphasizes that while our rivers and Lake Michigan are healthier now than they were 10 years ago, they still face challenges. Non-point pollution, carried by stormwater and snow melt, threatens to contaminate our waterways. Because it comes from a variety of sources—yards, driveways, cars, farms—it’s harder to control.

“Rain or melting snow washes soil, litter, pet waste, fertilizer and lawn clippings off the pavement and into your storm drain. When storm drain water empties into lakes and streams, these materials become pollutants that can kill fish, close beaches, and increase weed and algae growth,” they explain on their website.

Through programs such as Adopt a Storm Drain, Respect Our Waters encourages people to keep storm drains near their homes clear from leaves and debris. Leaves left in water start to decompose, which releases phosphorus, similar to what is found in fertilizer, encouraging harmful algae bloom.


Training Water Conservation Leaders of the Future

Kathy Bates is faculty lead and instructor for the Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC) Environmental Health and Water Quality Technology program, an associate degree program at the Mequon campus that promotes environmental protection and sustainability with a focus on protecting our water, air and food supply resources.

“In Milwaukee, we might not realize the scarcity of water because we have Lake Michigan right here and people think we have plenty of water,” says Bates. “But to conserve, protect and make water sustainable for future generations, it comes down to educating the general public and the community at large about what we’re putting down our drains that eventually ends up at the treatment plant. Are we raking leaves into the street, which eventually get blown into the storm drains? Plastics pollution is also an emerging contaminant of concern.”

The Environmental Health and Water Quality Technology program was launched in 1968. The program trains students for positions in water treatment and recycling operations, water sampling, lab analytical work, field monitoring and more. “Our students love the variety of hands-on work, where they can use their minds along with a variety of instrumentation. It’s not just sitting at a desk all day,” Bates explains. “These jobs, whether related to drinking water or water reclamation, cannot be outsourced—and they provide living wages, good benefits and skills you could take anywhere. Current demand for these workers is still strong, because workers that started in this field during the 1970s and 1980s are retiring rapidly.”

Bates says that these jobs all play a critical role in water conservation by helping to prevent water scarcity through sustainability and green infrastructure.

UW School of Freshwater Sciences (SFS), an academic division of UW-Milwaukee, focuses on water research and graduate education. It is the only graduate school of freshwater science in the United States and only one of three in the world. The school also has a new undergraduate degree program where students can earn a Bachelor of Science in Freshwater Sciences to work in a broad range of fields such as water policy and aquatic sciences.

The school’s scientists and professors comprise a team of experts in many facets of freshwater study including the Great Lakes ecosystems; nutrients and algae; fish, aquaculture and aquaponics; invasive species; water and cities; lake levels and climate impacts; water and public health; groundwater; water policy; and water technology/industry.

Community engagement efforts include K-12 school outreach through activities such as the Lake Sturgeon Bowl tournament, Water Generation ROV Competition and Water Field adventures. Through CLEAR Milwaukee, SFS—along with Milwaukee Riverkeeper, Carroll University and the Urban Ecology Center—recognize emerging contaminants in local streams and Lake Michigan. CLEAR Milwaukee mobilizes volunteers to collect water samples from 20 river stations along our waterways. SFS professionals also share their expertise through speaking engagements.

Milwaukee is lucky to have so many dedicated people working on behalf of the city’s clean water, but additional volunteers or funds are always welcome. To get involved, reach out to one of the organizations below.

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