The Past, Present, and Future of Sweet Water: Part I of II


By Kristin Schoenecker, Program Assistant

Sweet Water is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year, so it seems appropriate to pause for a moment to look back at the successes of the last ten years as well as to look forward at the possibilities of the next ten years. This is the first part of a two-part series about the past and future of Sweet Water. In this month’s article, we examine how the watershed has changed over the past ten years, and how Sweet Water and its many partners have played a role in this change. We speak to Karen Sands, Director of Planning, Research, and Sustainability for Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD), Ben Benninghoff, Natural Resources Basin Supervisor for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Chris Magruder, Chair of Sweet Water’s Science Advisory Committee, and Vicki Elkin, Director of Fund for Lake Michigan, in order to get a variety of perspectives on this topic. Check back in March to find the second installation in this series, as we examine possible paths forward in the next 10 years!

          Sweet Water was created in 2008 as a result of conversations between several members of the water quality community. Non-point source pollution had replaced point source pollution as the top contributor to water pollution in southeastern Wisconsin, and the community was recognizing the need for a central hub that would foster collaborative efforts to address this emerging problem. MMSD was also working on its 2020 facilities plan around this time, and it was going to be the first to take a watershed approach. Through its development, Kevin Shafer, Director of MMSD, recognized the need for an organization like Sweet Water. He became the driving force behind getting Sweet Water started, and between his efforts and that of many others, Sweet Water was founded in 2008 with support from the Joyce Foundation.


Did you know?

Before Sweet Water was officially named, it was called the Milwaukee Regional Partnership Initiative, or MRPI!


Not only did the creation of Sweet Water help MMSD as it finished up its 2020 facilities plan, but it was good news for the DNR. According to Ben Benninghoff, changes in available resources impacted DNR’s capacity to bring together the many organizations that were working to meet the goals set forth in the Clean Water Act. Sweet Water’s meetings and its Clean Rivers, Clean Lake Conference became platforms for all stakeholders to discuss and collaborate on their work on a watershed scale.

Over time, Sweet Water also developed some of its own projects and programs that focused on not just creating space for collaboration, but actively engaging in it. One of the most successful and long running of these programs has been the Water Quality Mini Grant Program.

          Two of the biggest and longest running funders of this program have been the Fund for Lake Michigan and MMSD. Both Karen Sands and Vicki Elkin cite the ability of this program to connect with the community on a grassroots level as important outreach that their organizations don’t have the capacity to do on their own. Sands additionally pointed out that these projects have the power to spread goodwill and change perception around water quality in ways that we can’t directly measure, as people engage with the rain gardens and other GI that are newly implemented into their everyday lives.


Did you know?

More than 100 Mini-Grants have been awarded throughout southeastern Wisconsin!


          Other major successes of Sweet Water have come out of the Science and Policy Advisory Committees. These two committees work in tandem to create science-backed policy recommendations to solve water quality issues. Although this has the potential to create division among stakeholders, Sweet Water’s role as a non-advocacy organization focuses on collaboration and invites input from a diverse set of stakeholders. As a result, the committee presents recommendations that are fair and balanced.  One of the first projects undertaken by this group was the creation of habitat recommendation plans for the Menomonee and Kinnickinnic Rivers. The same 2020 facilities plan that had led to Sweet Water’s creation lacked a biological monitoring/habitat plan, and this plan was able to fill that gap. It led to the removal of concrete and low flow barriers to allow for fish passage up the river, drastically improving habitat.

          Another more recent success of these groups is increasing implementation of bans on Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAH) in coal-tar sealants. PAHs are toxic, carcinogenic, or mutagenic to aquatic life and humans when they enter our waterways, and in 2016 the American Medical Association advocated for coal-tar sealants to be banned from use. Under the leadership of Chris Magruder, a working group of science and policy committee members developed a white paper that has led to the ban of or limited use of coal-tar and high PAH pavement sealants in communities both in the Greater Milwaukee area as well as throughout Wisconsin.

          While Chris Magruder believes that the research surrounding PAHs would have been done on its own, he isn’t convinced that PAHs would have been banned in the Greater Milwaukee Area without Sweet Water. He hopes that similar success will be seen in the future under the work of the bacteria working group, also out of the Sweet Water Science and Policy committees.


Did you know?

USA Today wrote an article in 2016 about the PAH research that MMSD and USGS were doing in Milwaukee!


          Sweet Water has also played in a critical role in developing Watershed Restoration Plans in the region.  These plans were the predecessors of the Nine Key Element Plans being created and implemented today. The Watershed Restoration Plan for the Root River was one of the first projects that Fund for Lake Michigan granted funds to Sweet Water for in their first year of operation in 2011. According to Elkin, these plans are a critical first step toward improving water quality on a large scale, which is the Fund for Lake Michigan’s ultimate goal. Karen Sands agrees on their importance, saying that they were instrumental for showing funders early on that watershed restoration work was worthy of receiving funding.

          And so they were. Over the years, water quality improvement funding and project implementation has been increasing. Of course, this isn’t solely due to Sweet Water’s work. This also relies on the efforts of so many partners throughout the watershed. MMSD, DNR, SEWRPC, Milwaukee River Keeper, Clean Wisconsin, 16th Street Community Health Center, Milwaukee Water Commons, and so many more have helped to increase awareness surrounding water quality throughout the region, reaching more diverse audiences as they work collaboratively on complex issues.

          These tremendous successes throughout the watershed have brought some interesting questions to light; that is, what is Sweet Water’s path forward over the next ten years? How does Sweet Water continue to foster collaboration in a space that has become so good at collaborating over the past ten years? And for those familiar with Respect Our Waters, Sweet Water’s key education and outreach effort, where does a certain talking dog puppet fit into all of this?? Check back in with us in March to see us grapple with these questions as we look where we are as an organization today as well as toward the next ten years of Sweet Water’s existence!