Riverkeeper: Milwaukee River Basin receives below average grade

The Wisconsin Gazette

The Milwaukee Riverkeeper this week released its sixth annual Milwaukee River Basin Report Card, which shows a C minus overall for the basin.

Annually, Milwaukee Riverkeeper provides details about the health of the Milwaukee River Basin’s three rivers — the Milwaukee, Menomonee, and Kinnickinnic — with the help of an ever-growing group of engaged citizen scientists, university researchers and partnerships with key government agencies.

The Milwaukee River Basin scored a C minus for 2015, showing little variation from 2014, but showing improvement from 2011’s D plus.

The best grade for a watershed was a B plus (Cedar Creek and the East & West Branch of the Milwaukee River Watershed) and the lowest was a D plus (Menomonee River), results from the last half decade of monitoring have been fairly consistent.

This year, Milwaukee Riverkeeper staff analyzed water quality data collected by more than 75 volunteer water monitors, the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewage District and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Milwaukee Riverkeeper staff compares all of this data to state and federal water quality standards and guidance and then assigns letter grades based on whether or not the watersheds meet these standards.

Watershed grades are determined by averaging results from nine water quality parameters including water temperature, dissolved oxygen, pH, turbidity, phosphorus, chloride, conductivity, macroinvertebrates and bacteria, across all Milwaukee River Basin watersheds.

Milwaukee Riverkeeper water quality specialist Zac Driscoll said, “When we consistently measure these parameters and compare them across time and location, we start to create a larger picture of watershed health. And then, based on what that picture reveals, we can act to improve water quality. We’re also really strategic in thinking about when and where our volunteers measure these parameters and coordinate with other groups and agencies.”

Milwaukee Riverkeeper uses the report card to identify potential problems and opportunities in watersheds and to provide an easy-to-understand snapshot of where government, researchers and citizens can advance policy measures and protections to better achieve swimmable, fishable rivers.

The report helps determine where in the watershed action is most needed to reduce pollution levels and to improve water quality and aquatic habitat.

Cheryl Nenn, Riverkeeper for Milwaukee Riverkeeper, stated in a news release, “Our annual report card shows we’ve come a long way in improving many aspects of the Milwaukee River Basin’s water quality and focuses in on where we still have a lot of work to do to achieve clean water.”

For example, the Milwaukee River Watershed received an F for phosphorus four years in a row. All three river watersheds receive failing grades for phosphorus, except for the Kinnickinnic River Watershed, which received a D in 2015.

“Our years of monitoring data show that we continue to have a significant problem with phosphorus pollution,” Nenn said. “In rural areas of the Milwaukee River Basin, fertilizers and manure are the major sources of phosphorus pollution to rivers and streams. In urban areas, polluted stormwater runoff and treated wastewater are the major sources of phosphorus to rivers and streams.”

The DNR has proposed a “Total Maximum Daily Load” for phosphorus discharges to the Milwaukee River Basin. If approved, this could push down the amount of phosphorus that permitted dischargers will be allowed to release into the Milwaukee River Basin.

The Report Card also highlights how people can take part in the effort to improve waters through changing behaviors, such as reducing application of lawn chemicals and road salt or by volunteering to monitor water quality.

Driscoll said, “We think our program offers a really unique opportunity for anyone interested in learning more about the health of our three rivers and giving back to our community to ensure we have clean, safe water for the future.”

On the Web

Read the 2015 Milwaukee River Basin Report Card.