Last Wednesday, your trusty blogger accompanied Center for Limnology post doc, Peter Levi, as he headed to Milwaukee for his research on what is, frankly, an under-served ecosystem in limnological circles – the urban river.
Peter Levi takes samples from the field. And the city. Here he is sampling Underwood Creek, as recently restored tributary of the Menomonee River.
Most metropolitan areas have a sordid history with their rivers. The waterways that first made them appealing for settlement, soon made them indispensable to industry, as turn of the century (and some much more recent) developments like paper mills, steel plants and feed lots used the rivers as a convenient way to flush waste downstream. As a result, many cities turned their back on their rivers and the prime real estate migrated far from their banks.
Straight as far as the eye can see. This channelized section of the Kinnickinnic River contributes to flooding issues downstream.
In many cases, cities also “improved” rivers by straightening their course and “channelizing,” or lining the river in concrete. They become little more than straight-as-an-arrow throughways designed to get water out of town.
The problem, as the city of Milwaukee discovered, is that, when you have all of the impervious surface of a city, combined with a massive rain event and nothing but concrete channels, well, rivers rise fast, resulting in dangerous floods. Milwaukee realized that letting a river wander actually slowed the flow of water and let downstream areas drain before a new wave of stormwater came pouring in. So the city, primarily the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD), reversed course and put the bend back in its rivers. Nowhere is the effect as dramatic as on the Kinnickinnic. Continue reading