Let’s Dive In: Milwaukee Riverkeeper's Report on River Health 🛶 🐟


What is happening?

The Milwaukee River Basin scored a C- (70.68%) in overall river health in 2020. The increase in grade is the result of less rainfall in 2020, compared to the previous two record-breaking wet years. Less rainfall means less stormwater runoff, which carries pollutants into our waterways. We see this most dramatically through improvements in turbidity across the Basin in 2020.

Overall, the Basin continues to struggle in 3 areas: phosphorus, bacteria and conductivity.

  1. Phosphorus is largely from fertilizers, sewage and manure, industrial sources, and from corrosion inhibitors added to drinking water to minimize leaching from lead pipes.

  2. Bacteria comes from many sources, including sewage, manure, wildlife, dogs, and other natural sources.

  3. Conductivity measures charged particles, and this is likely impacted by nutrients in “charged” forms (nitrates, phosphates, etc.) that are in sewage, manure, and fertilizer; as well as by road salt and other deicing products in winter months.

Why should you care?

  • Your Health: Water is essential to life. Poor water quality can affect your health. In the Milwaukee River Basin, we get our drinking water from both surface water and groundwater. Our rivers all drain to Lake Michigan, which provides drinking water to over 1 million people in southeast Wisconsin. Though it’s treated before we consume it, some contaminants are hard to remove from water, or are not currently regulated. The greatest impact of bad water quality is on fish and other river dwelling creatures. In many areas of our Basin, fish consumption advisories are a reminder that it’s still not safe to consume the fish living in our waters.

  • The Economy: Clean water is good business. Many businesses rely on clean water — farming, fishing, tourism, breweries, food industries, etc. The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) released 2020 data for Outdoor Recreation, in Wisconsin, $7.8 billion was spent in 2020, with huge increases in growth in boating & canoeing during pandemic.

  • Your Taxes: Cities, counties and other local governments are often responsible for ensuring clean drinking water gets to residents and sewage is treated appropriately. Government agencies in the Milwaukee River Basin are also facing stronger regulations and requirements to reduce stormwater pollution. Poor water quality means a greater investment in resources will be needed to address drinking water, sewage treatment, and stormwater issues, and those costs will most likely be paid by you, the taxpayer.

  • Being Neighborly: We are all connected by the abundance of freshwater in our region. As our rivers flow downstream, they ultimately drain into the source of our drinking water, Lake Michigan. If upstream waters are contaminated, they carry contamination downstream to other neighbors, and ultimately to our water supply. Clean water is essential to a high quality of life in southeast Wisconsin, and beyond.

What can we do about it?