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Blue Notes by Kevin Shafer March 2020 - Milwaukee's Area of Concern

03/05/20 08:05:am
Blue Notes Newsletter from Kevin Shafer


The old phrase, “When opportunity knocks,” is wise advice, especially when the knock is more than a faint tap.  Right now, the Milwaukee area has a huge opportunity to take the next step to clean up our rivers, and it’s the Federal government knocking.

Milwaukee was incorporated in 1846 and has a long industrial heritage.  The industrial foundation for the City came at the expense of the environment, as we filled wetlands, polluted our rivers with contaminated sediments, and discharged sewage flowing unchecked into the rivers and Lake Michigan.  We did what we thought was best at the time.  It just happened.  Over time, we have minimized many of these negative impacts.  We have dramatically reduced sewer overflows and are implementing green infrastructure, which allows us to capture even more pollution before it enters the rivers and lake. 

Now, we have an opportunity to clean up the toxic pollution that sits at the bottom of our rivers that has built up over all those years of neglect.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) calls these polluted locations around the Great Lakes “Areas of Concern” (AOC).  There are over 40 of these locations around the Great Lakes and five in Wisconsin, including the rivers and Milwaukee harbor.  Over the years, EPA worked to restore these areas by removing the polluted sediments and restoring habitat.  The revitalization of the lakefront in Sheboygan is a good example of an AOC that has been cleaned up and currently is in the monitoring phase.


Now, EPA is looking to prioritize the next location to target federal cleanup funding.  The DNR and other groups in Milwaukee have worked for years to identify an acceptable list of action items.  This list will come with a cost.  The majority of the costs could be paid for by the Federal government, but a multi-million-dollar local match is required.

Think of the number of unemployed people we can employ.  (Knock.)  Think of the economic development potential.  (Knock.)  Think of the improvements to public health.  (Knock.)

This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for this region to make a lasting impact.  I hear the knocking; we need to raise the local cost-share to open the door.

Kevin L. Shafer, P.E.
Executive Director - Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District 

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What is an Area of Concern (AOC)?

It's defined in the United States-Canada Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement as "a geographic area designated by the Parties where significant impairment of beneficial uses has occurred as a result of human activities at the local level." It is an area that has experienced environmental degradation. When AOCs were originally identified, there were 43 areas in the Great Lakes region. As of August 2016, 7 AOCs (4 in the US and 3 in Canada) have been de-listed.

Where is the Milwaukee Area of Concern Located?

The original boundaries of the AOC included the lower 5 km of the Milwaukee River downstream of North Avenue Dam; the lower 4.8 km of the Menomonee River downstream of 35th Street; the lower 4 km of the Kinnickinnic River downstream of Chase Avenue; the inner and outer harbors; and the nearshore waters of Lake Michigan, bounded by a line extending north from Sheridan Park to the city of Milwaukee’s Linnwood water intake.

In 2008, the boundaries of the AOC were expanded for the purposes of addressing sites that contributed significant loads of contaminated sediments to the estuary. 

Want to learn more about the Milwaukee River Estuary Area of Concern? Find out how you can help the Estuary make a full recovery here.