Collaboration saved the Milwaukee River

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The impressive and encouraging improvements along the 100 miles of the Milwaukee River didn’t just happen. They are the results of a half-century of far-sighted leadership, dedicated efforts of thousands of citizens and intentional, innovative and expensive projects.

Our metropolitan newspaper is calling out those improvements, and it’s appropriate news coverage. Environmental reporting tends toward the negative, such as its concurrent reporting on the massive threats to the Great Lakes. That’s necessary and important. We need to know about the monumental mistakes made in building the Chicago Canal, the St. Lawrence Seaway and the dredging of the St. Clare River. And we need to know about potential fixes of those policy failures. But it’s good to step back on occasion and celebrate the progress.

The progress is visible every day in the number of kayaks and canoes on the river, the growing ranks of anglers who no longer need to head up north to find river fishing and the condominiums and apartments that are springing up on river shores that once were the contaminated sites old industries in West Bend, Grafton and Milwaukee.

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The estimated $5 billion in environmental projects, from Milwaukee’s deep tunnel to riverbank protection up stream, have paid off. Some of the returns on investment can be measured, like the half billion dollars of additions in property values from the residential boom along the river.

Some should be measured, like the value of potable water.

Some will never be measured, like the fun my wife and I had two weeks ago as we canoed up the secluded main stem of the river from County H to Kewaskum. (We picked up a dozen good golf balls — what’s that worth?)

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Such positive outcomes beget more progress, because people come to realize that their efforts, large or small, are collectively making a huge impact.

There are five major cleanups of industrial sites under way downstream, and those need to get done with federal, state and local tax dollars. The brownfields in the industrial areas in West Bend County were remediated years ago under the brilliant leadership of John Capelle.

Municipal sewerage plants, among the worst polluters, were improved to tertiary levels of treatment in the 1970s and 1980s.

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Citizens of Ozaukee and Washington counties have pulled thousands of truckloads of junk out of the three branches and the main stem over several decades. That work continues, because there are still nincompoops who use the river as a dumping ground.

There might be a tendency to think that the main work of restoration is finished. But that’s not the case. The managers of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Sewerage District (MMSD) have deduced that protecting the sponge areas up stream on the four tributaries is less expensive that building deep tunnels and flood channels downstream.

Preventing overloads of the combined storm and sanitary systems in Milwaukee is a high priority, because it is those overloads that cause the raw sewage dumps a couple of times a year in Milwaukee. (It used to be 50 times a year.)

So MMSD has teamed up with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust to acquire those rain-absorbing properties. It’s a huge undertaking, involving more than 1,000 acres.

At the same time, the Cedar Lake Conservation Foundation continues to acquire key properties in its water shed. The most recent are the fabulous Reynolds and Lois Pick properties. Their work will mean a clean Cedar Creek and and therefore a cleaner Milwaukee River.

Milwaukee Riverkeeper gave grades of B and B-plus to the upper branches, but an unacceptable C to the overall watershed. So, the region has more work to do. The health of the river and its impact on the health of Lake Michigan is a top regional strategic priority.

There is yet another dimension to all this good work. The region is demonstrating enlightened leadership on stewardship of its most valuable resource.

Imagine if all other regions in the eight states and two Canadian provinces with a major tributary flowing into the Great Lakes followed suit. In another 50 years, not that long a piece of time in the greater scheme of things, as the last 50 years have proved, the whole five-lake system could be in a lot better shape.

John Torinus is chairman of Serigraph Inc. in West Bend. He is involved with several business and civic organizations and is the author of “The Company That Solved Health Care.” His blog appears regularly at and is republished with his permission by BizTimes.

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