Removing Concrete from the Menomonee River

In 1965, in what we see now was a misguided attempt to direct flood flows downstream as quickly as possible, the Menomonee River was deepened and lined with contrete for approximately 4,600 feet from present-day North 45th Street near State Street to approximately 500 feet south of I-94. From 1999-2000, Milwaukee Riverkeeper (formerly Friends of Milwaukee’s Rivers) worked with MMSD and other community partners to remove a six-foot high drop structure at 45th Street, as well as 1,200 feet of concrete channel to restore ecological function to the stream.

Milwaukee Riverkeeper thought that these improvements would help address fish passage concerns following the earlier removal of the downstream “Falk Dam.” However, poor habitat, in combination with fast moving water and a steep gradient in the remaining concrete section (roughly between Miller Brewery and Miller Park), inhibited all but the strongest swimming fish from passing through this area and reaching better spawning and rearing habitat upstream. After years of planning and fundraising, MMSD began removing about 1,000 feet of the steepest section of concrete channel from the lower Menomonee River between Miller Brewery (just upstream of the Canadian Pacific rail bridge) to downstream of Wisconsin Avenue in 2013. Concrete was removed, the river bottom was naturalized, and riffles and 13 pools were constructed to aid in fish passage.

The first phase of the project was finished in 2015, with the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funding $1.1 million of project costs and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation paying $200,000. WDNR and SEWRPC were very active in assisting with project design and planning, and Milwaukee Riverkeeper and Trout Unlimited helped with citizen outreach, monitoring, and clean-up efforts. The second phase of concrete channel removal is being led by the Army Corps of Engineers and will hopefully be completed this summer.

This project is removing 2,700 feet of concrete channel from Wisconsin Avenue to just downstream of I-94, and creating a similar natural riffle-pool sequence in a flatter section of stream. The Corps has put nearly $4 million into this project, with MMSD picking up $2 million of the total project cost. A press conference was held on April 27, 2016 to celebrate these projects, which we all hope will improve aquatic habitat and provide fish passage for resident fish as well as fish migrating upstream from Lake Michigan. We also expect that it will increase recreational fishing opportunities for 32 miles upstream.

In late 2015, MMSD also finished a nearly million dollar project to remove four “low flow” barriers—old pipe and road crossings mostly in the 1-3 feet high range—and to ramp another barrier (a sewer that serves Hoyt Pool) with rock in Hoyt Park upstream. This project improves fish passage for non-jumping native fish such as northern pike. Milwaukee Riverkeeper contracted with Interfluve to create conceptual designs for this project in 2014, and our work crews removed 25 woody debris barriers upstream in 2015 (thanks to funds from Wisconsin Coastal Management). We also have designs to replace several problem culverts, and hope to tackle a few more woody debris barriers in 2016.