Posted on January 18, 2023
Cheryl Nenn with Milwaukee Riverkeeper meets me just upstream from the bridge spanning the Menomonee River at Water Street in downtown Milwaukee at the northeastern edge of the Walker’s Point Neighborhood. A restaurant, Screaming Tuna, is behind us.
“We’re close to the confluence of the Menomonee with the Milwaukee River. There’s a couple of big deposits of contaminated sediment. One is right here where we’re standing,” Nenn says.
For years, Nenn’s group has coordinated clean ups throughout the watershed—plucking out debris like the garbage bin and t-shirt we see right now.
“We get calls about ‘oh there’s a picnic table in the middle of the river, can you go get it?'” Nenn says.
But Nenn says 2023 heralds the beginning of a deep clean.
The estuary has been listed as one of the nation’s “areas of concern” since the 1980s because of what Nenn calls “significant degradation from human activity in the past.”
“A lot of the sediment is accumulated right here in this corner. It’s really a lot of muck at the bottom of the river that’s bound with a lot of pollutants. This will be the first area that will be dredged in the spring,” Nenn says.
The gargantuan task requires hiring crews to dredge the contaminated sediment from the rivers.
The federal government is covering 65% of the associated costs. Local and state partners will cover the rest.
Nenn says it’s the beginning of a bigger cleanup that will stretch across time, five to eight years, and space, which includes portions of the inner harbor along with 12 miles of river–covering sections of the Kinnickinnic, Milwaukee and Menomonee.
“Going from this point up to City Lights Brewing area. That was a former power plant, a precursor of We Energies owned. They’re also responsible for some of this,” Nenn says.
The volume of sediment is mind-boggling. Imagine 6 to 12 football fields, filled five-stories high.
Crews have already installed an extra layer of steel here and will be reinforcing other sections of the long-hardened rivers’ edges, “Where there will be heavy dredging to protect walls that were often very old. Much of this work will be done with hydraulic dredging, which is essentially like an underwater vacuum cleaner,” Nenn says.
Much of the contaminated sediment will be delivered to what’s called a dredged material management facility or DMMF. Picture the Lake Express ferry terminal along Milwaukee’s outer harbor. Nenn says the 42-acre watertight storage place – its design slightly modified along the way – will be built north of the terminal.
“They have redesigned it slightly because of climate-related concerns to make sure it can withstand pretty big changes in lake levels that we’re seeing. So there’s a little bit of delay with that facility, but our existing sediment facility still has some room in it,” Nenn says.
That site is right next to the ferry terminal. And just when you think things couldn’t be more complicated. “That facility is really managed by the Army Corps of Engineers. So they’re letting use some of their capacity and then they’ll get some equivalent capacity in the new facility when that’s constructed,” Nenn explains.
Beyond the muck removal, some major beach improvements will unfold. A fish passage upstream along the Milwaukee River is percolating, as well as other habitat projects.
Nenn says all of the work is not just about restoring life in the estuary; it’s about creating access to the waters in the heart of the city and that residents have a voice in its design, especially those who have historically had little or no say in environmental decisions.
“We’re talking about potentially hundreds of millions of dollars that are going to be coming into town, and so we can get additional fishing access points, additional trails, better access for folks to get the river and make it more of an amenity,” Nenn says.
Nenn serves on a community advisory committee created to bring more people and their opinion to the table.
She says 2023 should not only be a time to celebrate progress in the Milwaukee estuary’s restoration but in bringing community together to discuss and plan it.
“The big part of this work is also making sure the community knows how to engage, that we’re hearing from folks and to take those messages to the decision-makers and the agencies that are running a lot of this work,” Nenn says.