The Past, Present, and Future of Sweet Water: Part II 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 second part of a two-part series about the past, present, and future of Sweet Water. In Part I we examined 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.  In this month’s article, we take stock of some of our current projects and programs, and then take a glance at how these programs as well as our mission will serve to propel us into the future. In addition to the staff, 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 these topics.

The Water Quality Mini-Grant Program

Last month, we reviewed some of Sweet Water’s greatest successes. Many of them are still going strong today! One such example is the Water Quality Mini-Grant Program! This program recently announced its ninth round of awardees, and with the fourteen winners, the number of mini-grant projects from all years now totals one-hundred thirty-seven. To see a complete list of this year’s awardees, check out last month’s article, And the Winners Are.... After a recent meeting at which all the awardees were convened, Joan Herriges, Mini-Grant Program Director, had to say: “It was great to meet all our 2019 Mini-Grant winners at our recent beginning-of-the-season meeting – now, they just need spring to arrive to begin their projects!”

The Science and Policy Advisory Committees

  The Science and Policy Advisory Committees are still engaging in active projects as well. In addition to meeting approximately every two months to learn about and discuss water quality topics relevant to the region, two working groups that follow the model of the PAH Working Group have developed: the Bacteria Working Group and the Leaf Management Working Group. Both groups will respectively work towards decreasing bacteria and phosphorus loading to waterways, just as the PAH campaign led to reductions in the use of coal-tar sealants that lead to PAH pollution (For more information about the successes of the PAH campaign, check out Part I of this series). Bacteria and phosphorus are of particular interest to the Milwaukee River Basin because of the TMDLs for the Kinnickinnic, Menomonee, and Milwaukee River Watersheds that call for reductions of these pollutants.

Ben Benninghoff shared some insight on how these working groups could develop results that are as successful as those of the PAH Working Group. He believes the PAH campaign benefited enormously from the leadership of Chris Magruder, chair of the science committee, and that it will be important for other watershed “champions” to lead the cause. Benninghoff explained that for these watershed-wide issues, it is important to find a leader that can see all sides of the issue, from permit requirements, to public health effects, to resource restrictions. Recognition of the many facets of the issue encourages the buy-in of multiple stakeholders, and this recognition is what made the PAH campaign successful, and what gives the Bacteria and Leaf Management Working Groups potential.

The Water Quality Improvement Plan

            This inclusion of multiple perspectives and stakeholders is also being encouraged in current watershed planning efforts with the development of the Water Quality Improvement Plan. This plan for the Greater Milwaukee Watersheds looks to garner feedback from all realms of watershed stakeholders in order to develop a plan for how work should be funded, prioritized, and implemented, while also working collaboratively and leveraging the strengths of all stakeholders. It also looks into the future to develop the best ways for monitoring and measuring the impacts of the plan so that it can be improved upon over time. More on this plan can be found in this month’s article Water Quality Improvement Plan Update.

Respect Our Waters and Adopt A Storm Drain

Another forward-looking and growing program of Sweet Water is the Respect Our Waters Program, which helps 37 municipalities across the Milwaukee River Basin meet their stormwater pollution education and outreach requirements. This is done through multi-media educational campaigns, community events, a new Adopt-A-Storm Drain program, and of course, the sassy spokes-dog Sparkles the Water Spaniel. Sparkles appears on television and through other outlets to properly “train” audiences about how to engage in practices that keep water clean. The many components of this campaign help Respect Our Waters to reach a diverse audience, which is critical to the achievement of watershed-wide improvements in water quality.  It’s also important to highlight the great work of municipalities and partners across the watershed, so if you have a stormwater success story and would like to see it aired on television, please let us know! Reach out to Jake Fincher, Stormwater Program Manager, at

Karen Sands highlighted the importance of public education and outreach, calling it a “labor of love” to change minds and practices one at a time when it comes to stormwater pollution. The Adopt-A-Storm Drain program facilitates this work by creating opportunities for individuals to more actively care for the watershed by clearing and marking storm drains. In the pilot phase of this program, over 70 storm drains were adopted. In 2019 we hope to build upon the program by enhancing our interactive map, allowing residents to proudly display yard signs that state they have adopted a drain, and adding a series of additional education activities.

The Future of Watershed Collaboration

Sweet Water’s current set of strong programs and projects sets the organization to be very successful in the future. However, what of the organization’s niche of fostering collaboration throughout the the Greater Milwaukee Watersheds? The region’s water scene has changed a lot since 2008 with the establishment of new and the growth of existing water-focused NGOs, governmental programs, and public awareness. Of course, this is positive growth and provides many more opportunities for collaboration, but it also means there are many more projects and programs out there to keep track of and collaborations that are happening independent of Sweet Water’s assistance.

Vicki Elkin offered that as long as Sweet Water can add value to and not compete on issues, the organization will continue to be successful. Ben Benninghoff also agreed that collaboration is still key in the region, and that as long as Sweet Water can continue to meet stakeholders where they are at, hear their concerns, and then find the commonalities that will fuel collaborative work, it will have a place doing the work we were originally created to do. Perhaps another path forward will be to expand collaboration surrounding watershed issues outside of water quality circles. Such collaboration isn’t new; public health and art communities both have their own reasons for valuing clean and healthy waters, and such organizations as Sixteenth Street Community Health Center have long been a partner of Sweet Water. In the end, everyone wants clean water in southeastern Wisconsin, and this shared value guarantees that Sweet Water has a place in this community extending into the future.

From everyone at Sweet Water, we want to thank our partners, funders, and supporters for their support and hard work on behalf of the Greater Milwaukee Watersheds over the past ten years! We hope to continue to work with all of you for the next ten years and beyond.