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🐟Let’s Dive In: Milwaukee Riverkeeper's 2021 Report on River Health 🛶

The Milwaukee River Basin scored a D+ (68.82%) in overall river health. This year’s grade remains close to last year’s grade of a C- (70.68%). The slight decrease in grade is likely the result of having more data in 2021 than 2020, when the pandemic forced a late start to the monitoring season. More data gives a more accurate result. The 2021 grades are very similar to 2019 or pre-pandemic grades.

Overall, to get our rivers to swimmable and fishable, we must address issues related to stormwater runoff, including reducing sources of:

  • Phosphorus (fertilizers, manure, sewage)

  • Bacteria (sewage, manure, wildlife & pet waste)

  • Chloride (road salt, well softeners, food manufacturing, wastewater)

  • Conductivity (sewage, manure, fertilizer, road salt, industrial waste)

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?

Large scale policy change is necessary if we want to fully address these water quality issues in the Milwaukee River Basin. The looming threat of climate change, which in our area looks like extreme and volatile wet-weather events, makes upgrading leaky sewer infrastructure, infiltrating as much water as possible, protecting our soils, and minimizing polluted runoff even more important.

It’s taken decades for our rivers to become polluted, and it will take decades to restore their health. You can help ensure that change happens by taking action. Even small acts and choices can create meaningful change. Here are a few ideas:

  • Consider installing a rain barrel or rain garden to catch water where it falls.

  • Be mindful of road salt usage; excess salt isn’t safer, it actually leads to chloride pollution that harms local rivers.

  • Compost leaves; decaying leaf litter contributes to phosphorus, which can cause harmful and unsightly algae blooms and poor water quality conditions for aquatic life.

  • Contact your elected officials to ask for stronger regulations for clean water; consider running for local office and getting engaged in the future of your river community.

  • Sign up for the Milwaukee Riverkeeper e-newsletter to stay up to date with opportunities to help protect and restore our rivers, or follow us on social media.


28th Annual Milwaukee Riverkeeper Spring Cleanup

DATE & TIME: Saturday April 22, 9am - Noon

LOCATION: 80+ sites in Ozaukee, Washington, Milwaukee, and Waukesha Counties


This spring, join together in a community-wide effort across Milwaukee, Ozaukee, Washington and Waukesha counties to remove over 100,000 pounds of trash from our river system during the 28th Annual Milwaukee Riverkeeper Spring Cleanup! Milwaukee Riverkeeper provides the gloves, trash bags and FREE T-SHIRTS, you provide the people power, and together we will restore our waterways! Registration is required.

Photo Contest!

  • Take a picture of anything you find unique, unusual, or inspirational during the Spring Cleanup (Think nature photos, strange finds, smiling faces!)

  • Post your photos to social media and tag @mkeriverkeeper and include the hashtag #MRKCleanup28.

  • Posting your photo(s) and using the the tag and hashtag automatically enters you to win a Patagonia bag filled with goodies ($200 value).

  • 1 Photo = 1 entry, share multiple for more chances to win.

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The impending danger of climate change intensifies the need to upgrade leaky sewage infrastructure, absorb as geometry dash much water as possible, preserve our soils, and minimize polluting runoff. In our location, this translates into harsh and unpredictable wet-weather occurrences.


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