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Troubled waters

Alum helps restore Milwaukee's urban rivers and their neighborhoods

November 22, 2011

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.

"Right now [stormwater] goes right into the river, so whatever it's picking up goes in. We're going to measure what difference it makes in reducing the volume of water and improving the quality of water before it gets to the river itself," McAvoy says. The goal is to scale up and adopt additional stormwater management best practices in the neighborhood and adjacent areas.

Rain garden in Milwaukee
In a pilot effort, rain gardens and rain barrels near
the KK River demonstrate stormwater management
best practices that residents can adopt.

Residents have been eager to get involved after learning that the rain barrels and gardens will benefit the river, their neighborhood and their properties, and are encouraging one another to take part.

Environmental apprentice

This community-oriented approach - allowing residents to be part of the planning process and developing a sensitive strategy to meet their needs - is something McAvoy says he learned firsthand while studying at UW-Madison under Nelson Institute (then the Institute for Environmental Studies, or IES) faculty.

After graduating from Michigan State University with a degree in resource development, McAvoy served in the military. While stationed in Fort Belvoir, Va., in April 1970, he remembers the first Earth Day observance in nearby Washington, D.C., organized by U.S. Senator and Nelson Institute namesake Gaylord Nelson.

McAvoy knew he wanted to return to studying natural resources and was drawn to UW-Madison, he says, because the university was "beginning to develop this idea of having an interdisciplinary approach in natural resources, to educate graduate students particularly. There was a whole group of enthusiastic students coming into the program at that time and I was one of the first to get involved." (The fall of 1970 marked the official beginning of the Institute for Environmental Studies).

McAvoy took a number of courses in Water Resources Management (WRM), a graduate degree program that would become affiliated with the institute in 1972. McAvoy also formed his own masters committee of Bill Lord and Ray Penn, then professors of agricultural economics and members of the WRM faculty executive committee, and law professor Carl Runge, who maintained close ties with the Nelson Institute.

"It was great to work with these young folks from all over the country who were pursuing different careers but were doing it under this umbrella of the Institute for Environmental Studies," McAvoy says. "And the faculty, which made the biggest difference I think, were so committed to this - so passionate about trying to get students together to work on real-world problems of the day and using that to really educate students."

"We had very gifted faculty but we were given the opportunity to work with local, state and federal officials," he continues. "We worked on a number of issues that became very important."

Among those was a controversy over federal relicensing of the Chippewa Flowage dam in northwestern Wisconsin to the Northern States Power Company. McAvoy was part of a student-faculty team led by Steve Born, now an emeritus professor of urban and regional planning and environmental studies, that investigated the issue from 1971-72 as part of the annual WRM workshop. Erhard Joeres, who would become interim director of the Nelson Institute in 2002, was also involved as a new faculty member in the department of civil and environmental engineering.

(The WRM workshop continues today, offering students the opportunity to collectively study a contemporary water resources problem of immediate and vital concern to a community.)

Social impacts

In the case of the Chippewa Flowage, the WRM team worked with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to provide scientific and ecological information about the river system, an analysis of policy issues, and a list of possible alternatives (and their consequences) for future use of the flowage. Their final report was presented to then Wisconsin Gov. Patrick Lucey and other stakeholders involved with the relicensing decision.

During its investigation, McAvoy says, the team realized that while there were environmental concerns due to perceived threats to the reservoir's near-wilderness features and recreational opportunities, underlying issues related to Indian welfare would also bear heavily on the relicensing decision.

"The idea that the
[university] is not
limited to the campus
- the Wisconsin Idea -
for me was real, and
it was for a lot of people.

"We were coming up with solutions that were going to address some of the natural resource issues, and I think they would have," McAvoy says. "But what we learned as we started to have more direct involvement with the community was that the underlying issues were really economic ... in particular for the Native Americans, because they had been left out of the equation for a long time."

For example, reservation lands of the Lac Courte Oreilles band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians were included within the flowage area when it was created, over the tribe's objection. Flooding nearly extirpated the wild rice crop traditionally harvested by the band and drastically altered its self-sufficient, subsistence lifestyle.

"There were deep-seated feelings about that," McAvoy says. The WRM team realized that some of the solutions they were coming up with could actually perpetuate or continue those trends. "We started to think about it more in terms of how you manage and use in a sustainable way the natural resource base, but help address some of the fundamental and underlying socio-economic issues. I think for many of us it was a really good learning experience."

Ultimately, as a result of the relicensing procedure and settlement claims, certain lands were transferred to the Lac Courte Oreilles, and the Wisconsin DNR and USDA Forest Service purchased additional shoreline lands from Northern States Power.

"One of the things that was so obvious to me at the time and so appealing about going to Madison was that there really was this tie between the communities, the state and the academic institution," McAvoy says. "The idea that the [university] is not limited to the campus - the Wisconsin Idea - for me was real, and it was for a lot of people.

"It helped me at that point in my career to get more focused and understand where I wanted to really apply myself."

Full circle

So began a long-running relationship with the Nelson Institute. Throughout his career working on environmental and water policy issues, McAvoy has frequently consulted with institute faculty and alumni, including in the development and implementation of the Great Lakes Compact, a historic eight-state water management pact to set responsible standards for water use and conservation within the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River basin.

Chippewa Flowage
McAvoy was part of a Water Resources Management
student-faculty team that investigated the relicensing
of the Chippewa Flowage dam. Photo credit CC/akipta.

After earning a law degree from Marquette University, McAvoy worked for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, helping to implement and administer the Coastal Zone Management program, a voluntary federal-state partnership that provides for management of the nation's coastal resources, including the Great Lakes, and balances economic development with environmental conservation.

"Wisconsin at the time was just beginning to develop its program and I was one of the federal officials reviewing and ultimately approving [it]," McAvoy says. In 1978, the Wisconsin Coastal Zone Management Program became the first such program established in the Great Lakes.

"It was interesting to reconnect to Wisconsin and Madison, because some of the faculty that I had worked with at what became the Nelson Institute were instrumental in getting this program started,"
McAvoy says.

A few years later, he returned to Madison to work for then Gov. Tony Earl. While assisting the governor in getting landmark legislation passed to address acid rain and the implementation of the Great Lakes Charter - an agreement among the governors and premiers of the Great Lakes states and Canadian provinces regarding the management of the region's water resources - McAvoy worked with a number of university faculty and graduates, including former WRM classmates.

"It was a neat closing of a circle," he says.

In his current capacity with Sixteenth Street, McAvoy continues to be involved with the Nelson Institute. In May, McAvoy and Ben Gramling, the agency's sustainable development program manager, hosted students from the Nelson Institute's Culture, History and Environment (CHE) graduate certificate program for its annual place-based workshop, a several-day field trip with a cohort of CHE graduate students and faculty.

CHE place-based workshop
Sixteenth Street hosted Culture, History and
Environment students and faculty for a place-
based workshop in May. Credit William Cronon.

This year's workshop was built around the theme Landscapes of Health in Wisconsin, providing a place-based perspective on the diversity of populations, health care issues and landscapes that have been shaped by past and present economic, social and environmental conditions. While visiting Sixteenth Street, students toured the Kinnickinnic River corridor and the Menomonee River Valley, where revitalization efforts have been more than a decade in the making.

Once the backbone of Milwaukee's historic industrial sector and its urban economies - in 1920, more than 50,000 people were employed within the Menomonee River Valley - its role as a commercial hub faded dramatically through the second half of the 20th century with interstate highway development and the economic recession.

Most businesses closed or left and the Valley became a wasteland of abandoned buildings, standing vacant for more than two decades. Debris, sand, salt, coal and junked vehicles were stored in the Valley, making it not only an eyesore but an environmental hazard. It became the largest brownfield site in Wisconsin.

"If you were here ten years ago, it looked like something out of World War II in Berlin," McAvoy says. "It was these old buildings, the groundwater was contaminated, the soils were contaminated; it was just a mess."

Smart growth

Adjacent to the city's downtown, the Valley forms the northern boundary of Sixteenth Street's service area. Even though neighboring families were the most affected by the area's decline - and would have the most to gain from its restoration - McAvoy says it was a challenge to generate community interest in reclaiming the area. It had been so long neglected that few people had any connection.

"Nobody, except for the few people that were left working there, ever ventured in," McAvoy says.

The neighborhood not only suffered from the earlier exodus of jobs, but no new jobs were coming in. Meanwhile, the housing stock and the overall condition of the neighborhoods adjacent to the Valley were quickly deteriorating, contributing to further environmental and health problems. To support the long-term public health needs of those living in poverty near the Valley, this trend would need to be reversed.

"One of the things we pointed out was it's not just about cleaning up the environment; it's not just restoring it," McAvoy says. "We needed to get new employment centers developed that would provide good family-supporting jobs accessible to the people who live around the Valley.

"Sustainability for us was connecting the environment, the economy and the community in this effort to restore and then redevelop and create jobs. That became our focus."

Artist rendering of the revitalized Menomonee River Valley
The winning design for the Menomonee Valley
included a linked system of public spaces and
natural experiences.Credit Wenk Associates.

But there was still a disconnect with the community, he says. "Most people were thinking, 'You're going to do what in the valley? How is this going to work? How would it look?'"

Taking a creative approach and armed with support from an EPA grant, McAvoy initiated a Sustainable Development Design Charrette - a hands-on workshop model that brings people from different disciplines and backgrounds together to explore design options and solutions.

Renewed vision

More than 140 southeast Wisconsin design professionals participated in the charrette, collaborating with the community and local governments to develop visuals for how a sustainable Menomonee River Valley could look in the 21st century.

From this effort - the first design charrette held at this scale in Milwaukee, McAvoy believes - a unified vision for a revitalized Valley emerged. Community consensus began to tip toward redefining the Valley as a space that would hold significance for the city.

"It was the first time people thought, 'Wow, you could do that? It could look like that?'" McAvoy says. "People need to have a vision of how it will be, not how it is."

Support from community members, the local philanthropic community, government agencies, private firms and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts took the remediation and redevelopment efforts - and the design charrette - to the next level. A national design competition was launched in 2002, with 25 firms from around the world participating.

The competition required teams to present a design that would address environmental challenges and bring employment and recreational opportunities for the surrounding community back to the site. The community provided feedback on four finalists and a panel of nationally acclaimed landscape architects chose the winning design.

Proposed by the team of Wenk Associates of Denver, Colo., Applied Ecological Services of Brodhead, Wis., and HNTB of Milwaukee, it included a linked system of public spaces and natural experiences that draw upon the site's history and the city's diverse ethnic communities, a "working" landscape to cleanse pollutants, and a cutting-edge stormwater park to treat water naturally through a terraced system of native plants and woodlands.

The city of Milwaukee began to implement the design in 2003. Today nearly 40 firms are located in the Valley, bringing in thousands of new jobs, and more developments are underway that embrace sustainable design principles. New bridges, pedestrian paths and an extension of the Hank Aaron State Trail provide off-street access through the Valley to adjacent neighborhoods and commuter routes for Valley employees.

"People are using it a lot," McAvoy says. "You see all of these changes that have been happening; it's really incredible."

The nonprofit organization Menomonee Valley Partners, Inc., a private-public collaboration that Sixteenth Street helped to develop, continues to promote and sustain development of the Valley.

Building momentum

These efforts in the Menomonee River Valley have received national honors for both the design, recognized by the American Society of Landscape Architects, and the strides toward sustainability.

Bikers in the revitalized Menomonee River Valley
New bridges, pedestrian paths and an extension of
the Hank Aaron State Trail provide off-street access
through the Menomonee Valley. Credit Nancy Aten.

The Sierra Club named the Valley's stormwater park one of America's best new development projects in 2006 and the American Trails Board recognized the Menomonee Valley Partners in 2010 for their work with the Hank Aaron State Trail, citing its expansion in the Valley.

McAvoy's efforts have also been recognized and have become a model for working with partners to maximize and leverage resources to restore properties and attract new development.

In 2008, Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) Milwaukee, an organization that mobilizes corporate and philanthropic support to help build sustainable communities, presented McAvoy with its Navigator Award for his collaborative approach to helping revitalize Milwaukee's south side neighborhoods.

"In my career, I've noticed that oftentimes the parts of a community and the people that live within a community are not well connected, where if you could forge certain connections, you could really begin to make something happen," McAvoy says. "If you're going to sustain [a project], you need to keep people at the table, enlist them and keep building on it."