Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Earth Day: A community cleans up the KK

Which do you think is the more powerful metaphor?

A) While picking up trash along the concrete-lined Kinnickinnic River I found a framed print of exotic waterfowl discarded in riverside bushes.

B) Two hundred community members turned out last Saturday to pick up trash along a stretch of their river that has been little more than a drainage ditch for over 40 years.

The irony of the sentimental wildlife print discarded near the degraded river is good for a chuckle, but I choose B as the more important metaphor. The KK River Neighbors Association and the 16th St. Community Health Center turned people out in force to join in the annual Earth Day cleanup sponsored by Milwaukee Riverkeeper. The symbolism is clear: the community cares about its environment and is hopeful about the future of its maligned waterway.

The reason for that hope is as concrete as the river channel: The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District has begun a multi-year project to remove said concrete channel and restore a more natural flow to the Kinnickinnic River. Judging from the enthusiastic comments I heard repeatedly on Saturday, the community is thrilled at the prospect.

Acres of cleared land between Harrison Street (background) and the KK River (behind me) are evidence of progress on MMSD’s rehabilitation project. After houses in the flood-prone area are purchased and demolished the concrete channel will be removed and the river reconfigured within a landscaped park.

After two hours of picking up trash near the river and throughout the neighborhood on either side everyone gathered at another concrete symbol of the river’s revitalization. The concrete channel, which until recently extended east to the I-94 overpass, now ends just shy of the 6th St. Bridge. The first phase of the MMSD project was completed in 2011. In addition to removing the concrete channel a newly dedicated KK River Trail was created alongside the rehabilitated stream.

A huge crowd that included cleanup teams from several sites on the KK gathered along the 6th St segment of the KK River Trail for a “Trash Bash” organized by the event sponsors. Free pizza and burritos were available to all. There were family-friendly interactive displays related to water and the river. A team of scientists from UW—Madison were on hand to help folks learn more about their river.

The UW team provided hip waders for the public to borrow so that they could physically immerse themselves in the river. “Having kids and adults connect with the river in that way is huge,” said Iris Gonzalez, one of the organizers from the 16th St. Community Health Center. “Most of them were very hesitant to try but, after watching others (in some cases their own children), they were convinced. It is experiences like feeling the pressure of the water against your body, or the waders suck onto your legs when you step in and seeing fish and fish eggs up close that foment a spirit of stewardship.”

Local children spray water onto a watershed model that illustrates how water flows are affected by varying slopes, soils and vegetation conditions.

The success of the “Trash Bash” in bringing the community down to the river, to activate the new trail and to celebrate the transformation that is underway was a major achievement. Many in the neighborhood had not ventured there before, according to Gonzalez. However, she told me proudly, “I know they will be back!”

The event culminated in a spectacular demonstration of hydraulic flows and river dynamics. Peter Levi, the UW limnologist heading the team of scientists, poured red dye into the river just east of the 6th St. Bridge. At first the dye turned the water bright scarlet and then expanded to fill the width of the river. The dye gradually dissipated as it swirled downstream, around rocks and settled into pools. It was a crowd pleaser and a lovely end to the Earth Day river cleanup.

A brief series of photos from the day follows.

To see even more photos from this event go to my flickr album.

Full disclosure: I am substantially connected to many of the organizations responsible for the cleanup and KK River Project because the work they are doing is dear to my soul. As a former board member of Milwaukee Riverkeeper I have participated in most (if not all—I don’t quite recall) of their 20 annual river cleanups. I am working with the MMSD to document the current phase of the KK River Project. On top of that until recently my daughter, Chelsea, was employed by the 16th St. Community Health Center. And Chelsea brought my only (so far) granddaughter to help out with the cleanup. She’s only 3 years old, so she mostly played on the Cleveland Park playground and ate pizza at the Trash Bash. Hey, I said “full disclosure!” Oh, and Chelsea took my picture with this funny-looking fish.

More photos on flickr.

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