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Flooding and erosion of the watersheds in the greater Milwaukee area threaten public health and private property. Because watersheds boundaries do not necessarily follow municipal boundaries, reducing the risk of flooding requires looking at the watershed as a whole, including the complete river system and its tributaries.
A watershed is an area of land where all of the water, on the surface and underground, drains to a common place such as a lake, river, or ocean. MMSD's authority to reduce the risk of flooding is in Wis. Stats., sec. 200.31(1).
MMSD has discretionary authority to maintain these waterways. In the past, work has included: rehabilitation and removal of concrete, removal of sediment and flow-impeding objects, and widening floodplains for flood management purposes. In 1998, the District and local municipalities began the planning process for the development of an updated Watercourse System Management Plan. Flood abatement alternatives have been developed for each of the six watersheds. Phase I of the planning process incorporated the results of past planning efforts such as the 1990 Watercourse System Plan developed by the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (SEWRPC) as well as new technical information on land use, peak stormwater flows, estimated damages, and other hydrologic and hydraulic information. Meetings with stakeholders in each watershed focused on data gathering, problem identification, and the development and prioritization of potential structural and nonstructural alternatives for flood management.
In the 1950’s, 1960’s, and 1970’s, MMSD implemented numerous flood control and streambank stabilization projects for watercourses within Milwaukee County. The projects completed up through the 1970’s predominantly focused on storm/flood water conveyance capacity. Flooding streams, creeks, and rivers at the time were viewed both as serious nuisances and/or as storm/flood water conveyance conduits that must be controlled. Rarely were the waterways seen as valuable environmental resources and community assets worth protecting. During this time, MMSD’s flood management program consisted primarily of straightening, deepening, and widening the various streams, creeks, and rivers within its jurisdictional area.
These channel modifications were deemed as necessary to rapidly convey additional storm and floodwater downstream. These watercourse alterations consisted most often of concrete-lined channels, configured as open channels with trapezoidal cross-sections, having both the low flow channel and side slopes constructed from concrete to reduce friction, prevent erosion, and reduce the need for frequent maintenance. These were the most commonly utilized flood control techniques during this time, and many streams, creeks, and rivers in the Milwaukee region received these types of alterations.
The philosophy of flood control and accompanying engineering practices evolved into something better, not only having public safety foremost in mind but also long-lasting environmental and quality of life benefits connected with flood management projects. This prompted MMSD in 1996 to invest in an environmentally responsible systemwide watershed planning program, with the goal to solve current flooding problems while putting policies and programs in place to prevent future problems. This new program’s philosophy was shifted from the old paradigm of flood “control” to flood “management”.
Concrete Lined Kinnickinnic River in Jackson Park.
The shift in philosophy recognized in A New Era in Flood Management that severe weather, extreme rainfalls, and resulting floods could only truly be managed to the extent possible and not controlled. The systemwide watershed planning program also provided an opportunity to reverse some adverse flood relief techniques utilized in the past. It was recognized that urban channels could be rehabilitated with proper planning to accommodate both flood flows and provide an environmental stream corridor that incorporates meandering channels with pools and riffle sections as habitat enhancements and have aesthetic, stable, and native species vegetated banks. All these features collectively provide an attractive community/neighborhood asset that can also stimulate economic benefits and increase surrounding property values.
Greenseams® is an innovative flood management program that permanently protects key lands containing water-absorbing soils to prevent flooding.
The Working Soils® Program aims to permanently protect privately held working land in the Milwaukee River watershed floodplain. Healthy soils store rainwater, recharge groundwater, and reduce water pollution.