Kinnickinnic River Restoration – Great Lakes Now – 1009 – Segment 3

In recent years, many places have seen a
record-setting rainfall, and all that water
has to go somewhere. In Milwaukee, one urban river is being restored to
a more natural state to help prevent flooding
and ensure public safety. (peaceful music) – [Laura Weber-Davis]
Meandering through Milwaukee’s South Side,
is the Kinnickinnic River. Surrounded by more than
600 homes and businesses, it drains the most densely
populated watershed in the State of Wisconsin. Patrick Elliott is a
Senior Project Manager for the Milwaukee
Metropolitan Sewer District. – The Kinnickinnic River
Watershed is 26 square miles. It’s relatively small,
but it’s fully developed. It’s fully urbanized. – [Laura Weber-Davis]
Flowing northeast, the river empties into
the Milwaukee Estuary before heading
into Lake Michigan. Looking at the concrete channel
today, it’s hard to believe that it was once a
natural, tree-lined river before the city
expanded onto its banks during the first half
of the 20th Century. – As the city
expanded, as it moved from basically the downtown
area and expanded out, more and more of
the Kinnickinnic
River was developed. And so as this
development occurred, there were more impervious
surfaces that were created and streets and sidewalks
and parking lots, rooftops, all these surfaces that don’t allow
rain to soak in, the runoff from the
rain will flow quickly to these stream corridors. – [Laura Weber-Davis]
All those hard surfaces increased stormwater runoff
into the Kinnickinnic River and increased flooding. – It created problems back
in the 1950s and 1960s. And their approach to handling
this issue back in the day was to try and streamline
it, and so they just said, “Hey, let’s create a
nice, clean channel “that will move the water
as quickly as possible “out of this area.” – [Laura Weber-Davis]
More than seven miles of the river and its tributaries
were lined with concrete and while it worked
to quickly move water away from areas upstream, the new design actually
increased flood
events downriver. – So in this section
at the essentially the bottom of the funnel where everything
is draining to you, you actually made
the problem worse. – [Laura Weber-Davis]
It’s a problem that still exists today. – Unfortunately, we’ve
had several years within Milwaukee and with
the state of Wisconsin, where we’re seeing those
flood events more and more and it makes people understand that that flooding
is a serious danger. It’s a serious hazard. – [Laura Weber-Davis] Even
without overflowing its banks, the river poses a major safety
risk during storm events. – The river comes up so quickly and it goes down so quickly, and within this section,
it can move water up to 20 feet per second, which is faster than
white water rapids. So just imagine having
white water rapids running through a dense
urban neighborhood, right in behind
people’s backyards. And unfortunately,
because of that situation, people, if they fall in or slip
in, they’re not getting out. and we’ve had several deaths
on the Kinnickinnic River over the years. – [Laura Weber-Davis]
In addition to flooding and dangerous storm flows,
the concrete corridor is also responsible
for a major decline in the river’s fish population. Brennan Dow is with the
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. – In a natural habitat,
you would allow fish to be able to use things
like rocks or wood to be able to reproduce. This type of habitat with
a concrete-lined channel, it kind of takes away
that type of habitat for these different fish species that are looking to
use that to reproduce. – [Laura Weber-Davis] The
concrete channelization also means there’s
no way for the river to naturally filter
out pollutants before they reach Lake Michigan. – The Kinnickinnic
River is known as one of the more urban rivers that discharges
into Lake Michigan. Whatever makes it
into this river will end up eventually finding
its way into Lake Michigan. Specifically in how the
pollution gets into the lake, it’s just straight
down the gauntlet. (rushing water) (upbeat music) – [Laura Weber-Davis] To
address these problems, in 2009, the Milwaukee
Metropolitan Sewer District proposed a plan to
remove the concrete from the river corridor. – It started as a
concrete removal project. As they completed
the initial phases of that planning analysis, they got more data
on the flood levels and the flood concerns. And so then it
changed into not only a concrete removal channel
restoration project, but into a huge flood
management project. (flowing water and
machinery engines) So at this section, we’re
actually finishing up the last bit of concrete removal and then they place river stone down in the bottom
of the channel. And they’ll also place boulders and they’ll
strategically place those as places where fish that
are trying to pass upstream and they can rest
behind a boulder to be relieved from the current. – [Laura Weber-Davis] To see
what the finished product will look like, you
can look downstream at a stretch of the river that’s been restored
within Pulaski Park. Here, the project has grown beyond concrete removal
and flood management into a full-fledged
community restoration effort. Travis Hope is a
life-long resident of Milwaukee’s
Southside, and President of the Kinnickinnic River
Neighbors in Action Group. – This is a great project because everybody has come
together, all different entities and just really trying
to make a change and do something positive
for the neighborhood. The river project has
been like a spark plug in getting things
going in the community. So one of the things
that we did is we got public art
into the neighborhood that was never in this
neighborhood before. We have a brand new playground. The playground was outdated. We have a new basketball court. We have brand new
pedestrian bridge. I think this project’s been
very positive for the community and gives people something
to look forward to. We’re gonna have
this beautiful park and just a place where
people can have pride in. – [Laura Weber-Davis] And
there’s another community benefiting from the
river restoration. – You’re allowing fish species and other different
types of wildlife to be able to use things that haven’t been
available to them before. You’re adding habitat. You’re laying the
groundwork for things to be able to come in
and inhabit that habitat. If you get a lot of rain
during the time of the year that salmon want to go up
the river to reproduce, you might see salmon further up than you would have in the past. – [Laura Weber-Davis] In
all, the project will restore seven miles of stream within
the Kinnickinnnic River Basin. – So as we construct
these projects, as we widen the floodplain, we are creating more space
for the water to pool. As we open up some
of these bridges, we’re allowing the water
to flow under those bridges and not back up into
the neighborhoods in the business corridors. So as we construct
sections of the project, we will be reducing flood risk. – If you’re able to bring
back green space and trails that people are able to use along what used to be a
concrete-lined channel that really allows people
to kind of use a resource that comes back to the river. So if you, if you build
it, they will come. (gentle, upbeat music) – Thanks for watching. For more on these stories and
the Great Lakes in general, visit great lakes now dot org. When you get there, you can
follow us on social media or subscribe to our newsletter to get updates about our work. See you out on the lakes. (gentle upbeat music)

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