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Troubled waters

Alum helps restore Milwaukee's urban rivers and their neighborhoods

November 22, 2011 | By Meghan Lepisto

Standing alongside Milwaukee's Kinnickinnic River in the sweltering afternoon sun, it's easy to picture residents wading in for relief from the heat. A child's bike lies on its side in a few inches of water, possibly left behind during a recent respite. Graffiti splashes color across the river's concrete lining. The water is shallow this day, but not always.

The river, which travels more than nine miles through the city's south neighborhoods, can rise to street level after as little as two inches of rain, says Peter McAvoy. Two years ago at the intersection where we now stand, the water was so high cars were floating in the street.

Peter McAvoy
Peter McAvoy directs the
environmental health program
at Sixteenth Street Community
Health Center in Milwaukee.

McAvoy, who earned a master's degree in urban and regional planning with an environmental studies specialization in 1972, knows the river - and its dangers - inside and out. As vice president of the Sixteenth Street Community Health Center's department of environmental health, he works to eliminate or reduce health risks from environmental hazards in Milwaukee's south side neighborhoods. The heavily industrialized Kinnickinnic River corridor (known locally as the KK) is his present focus.

"We refer to it as the lost river - a forgotten river, if you will," McAvoy says. "The Milwaukee, the Menomonee and the Kinnickinnic rivers converge to help form the harbor of Milwaukee, on the shores of Lake Michigan, but the Kinnickinnic is heavily contaminated and all concrete channels; a lot of people think it's just a ditch and not a river."

At 25 square miles, the Kinnickinnic is the smallest of Milwaukee's three watersheds, but it presents a substantial risk to property and to public health. And it's one of the city's most densely populated neighborhoods, with roughly 145,000 people living among a high concentration of duplexes and triplexes.

The KK's fast-moving floodwaters cause the most drownings of any river in the city and damage neighboring homes. The water, where children often play and residents fish, is also heavily contaminated - passersby toss litter into the debris-filled channel; polluted sediment rests at the bottom in some areas; and the same storms that trigger out-of-bank flooding can cause the opening of stormwater gates that pour sewage into the river.

In the years ahead, however, the river will be transformed from a burden to a benefit and reconnected with the surrounding community.

Restoring the river

Under McAvoy's leadership, Sixteenth Street is working with the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District and other community partners and government agencies to revitalize and rehabilitate the KK corridor.

The restoration effort - made possible by grants from the Wisconsin Coastal Management Program, Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, The Joyce Foundation, Greater Milwaukee Foundation, Fund for Lake Michigan, The Brico Fund and others - will widen the river's footprint, increase its flood capacity and improve water quality, public safety and the health and well being of those who live along the KK.

Before being channelized in the early 1960s, the river was tree-lined with natural springs, fishing holes and abundant wildlife. The revitalized KK River corridor is envisioned as a continuous greenway with habitat for fish, birds and other wildlife, stormwater management features, community art and garden projects, and, to support a more active community, new park space and safe recreational opportunities, which the neighborhood currently lacks.

Kinnickinnic River flooding
Though the smallest of Milwaukee's three watersheds,
the Kinnickinnic River presents a substantial risk to
property and public health. Photo credit MMSD.

As part of the restoration effort, more than 80 homes in the flood plain along the river's banks will need to be removed so the channel's concrete lining can be pulled out, the river widened and its natural flow restored. Some homes have already been purchased by the city and others are slated for acquisition in the coming years.

"That's a critical step," McAvoy says. "If we don't do that, there are far more homes - about 300 - that are at risk, that regularly get flooded with heavy rains."

While the property acquisition could be a sensitive issue, much consideration has been given to residents' concerns, and the community has provided valuable input on how the neighborhood's character and affordability can be preserved as improvements are made.

Many within the KK River corridor visit Sixteenth Street for medical services, McAvoy says, so they've developed a rapport with the center.

"Because we've been around for so long and we're a trusted organization, I think the population and the residents here trust us," McAvoy says. "They know us because of what we do on the health side."

Whole health

Sixteenth Street, established in 1969, provides primary health care, health education and social services to underserved residents of Milwaukee's south side.

In 1997, in an effort to do more to prevent poor health outcomes by working on underlying causes, the center created its Department of Environmental Health. McAvoy has led the department since its beginning and, as a consultant to Sixteenth Street before the department's launch, developed an advisory team of residents, community-based organizations and government staff.

One of the first initiatives of the environmental health program was designed to reduce childhood lead poisoning through in-clinic screenings and door-to-door outreach, sharing information about lead hazards in the home and safeguards to minimize the risk of poisoning.

"In communities like Milwaukee that have much older housing stock, there's a real problem with lead poisoning," McAvoy says. "When we started, 39 percent of the children here were lead poisoned and many of them severely so." Today, rates have been driven down to two percent.

The department has also developed culturally and linguistically appropriate educational materials related to the dangers of contaminated fish, ozone and air pollution and beach closings.

And the department continues to lead efforts to redevelop abandoned, potentially contaminated industrial sites in the city. The area served by Sixteenth Street has the highest concentration of contaminated properties, the highest population density and some of the lowest average incomes in the state.

"The center has evolved to emphasize that we're not just an institution that provides medical services and high-quality medical care - we do that and we're very good at it; we're one of the best in the country by different statistics - but we emphasize that we're a community health center," McAvoy says. "For us, that means we engage the community in a variety of ways and have done so historically. The advantage for us is having those connections."

Artist rendering of the revitalized Kinnickinnic River
An artist rendering of the revitalized Kinnickinnic
River corridor. Credit JJR, LLC.

In community restoration efforts, McAvoy says, Sixteenth Street is "oftentimes the go between - almost a broker - with the families so they understand this is not about people just coming in and trying to get them out of the neighborhood or gentrifying the neighborhood; it's really to have long-term improvement."

Community partners

The community has been instrumental in shaping the Kinnickinnic River neighborhood plan, which was developed with input gathered through public workshops, door-to-door campaigns, bilingual communications and one-on-one interviews with stakeholders.

"We started by trying to get people to focus on what could happen in this watershed and what improvements could be made that would really add value to the community," McAvoy says.

The city's culturally diverse south neighborhoods are predominantly inhabited by immigrants from Puerto Rico, Mexico and other Latin American countries - a population historically not well served by key health and environmental messages distributed through media or other information channels. To remedy this - and to help teach the next generation the importance of environmental health and sustainable practices - community involvement, stewardship and education are important components of the KK River corridor restoration plan.

In a pilot effort, for example, rain gardens are being constructed in two blocks of S. Fifteenth Street, along with rain barrels, as a demonstration of stormwater management best practices that residents can adopt. Stormwater data collected from storm sewers will document the impact.

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