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A River Runs Through It

Menomonee River communities embrace cooperation

Dec. 26, 2012
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Rivers don’t respect political boundaries.

So why should clean water advocates be divided by those artificial divisions?

That was the thought that launched an 11-community effort in the Menomonee River watershed to improve water quality in an efficient, cost-effective manner.

Representatives of those municipalities—from Greenfield in the south to Germantown in the north—celebrated their new collaboration last week, which has been endorsed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

The 11 communities now are part of a watershed-based stormwater permit, just one of three in the country. The regional permit will replace the individual, municipality-based permits that had been in place, and it requires the communities to share information and projects concerning the river.

Eric Nitschke, southeastern region director for the DNR, said that a regional, watershed-based approach is a much better way to tackle issues such as water pollution, high phosphorus levels and bacteria that occur throughout the watershed.

“So much more can be accomplished” when the communities can work together, instead of working separately with state and local agencies, Nitschke said.

UW-Milwaukee’s Nancy Frank, chair of the Southeastern Wisconsin Watersheds Trust (Sweet Water), which spearheaded the regional effort, said that the new collaboration would improve water quality and save the communities money.

She said that communities would probably choose to work on the health of the riverbanks as one of their priorities.

“We know that the water that scours the banks of a river that ultimately is eroding, that water comes from upstream,” Franks said. “We know that the sediment that gets eroded ends up downstream. But it’s just in that one critical spot that we have a problem.”

Yet an individual community often lacks the resources or funds to address the problem, Franks said. But a joint effort would multiply those individual efforts, perhaps through joint monitoring, shared equipment or public outreach.


A Diverse Coalition

The communities that make up the new Menomonee River watershed collaboration are Brookfield, Butler, Elm Grove, Germantown, Greenfield, Menomonee Falls, Milwaukee, Milwaukee County, West Allis, West Milwaukee and Wauwatosa—a diverse group of partners in terms of size, political orientation and needs. This diversity reflects the Menomonee River’s varied course through rural, suburban and densely populated urban areas.

Supporting the effort are a number of environmental watchdogs, including the Metropolitan Milwaukee Sewerage District (MMSD), the Milwaukee Riverkeeper, Midwest Environmental Advocates, Clean Wisconsin, the River Alliance, 1000 Friends of Wisconsin and others.

Jeff Martinka, executive director of Sweet Water, said the environmental groups were part of the dialogue that led to the new collaboration.

“What made it strange and ultimately good was that folks who would normally be on their case about polluting too much were in the audience making suggestions,” Martinka said. “They were there, saying, ‘That sounds too weak,’ or ‘Why don’t you try that?’ Usually what happens is that [environmental organizations] meet local governments in courthouses or in hearing rooms where they’re protesting this or that. But in this instance it was a cooperative process to build this innovative approach.”


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