from ‘an open sewer’ to our greatest asset: how milwaukee overcame a legacy of industrial water pollution

By Stacy Vogel, Communications Director, The Water Council

It’s a gorgeous sunny evening in downtown Milwaukee.

On the Milwaukee River, two friends call out to each other as they paddle their kayaks under the Water Street bridge. A couple enjoying a drink on the patio of their riverfront condo raise a glass to a group doing the same on a pontoon boat chugging down the river. The sound of live music and smells of delicious food waft out from bars and restaurants as people of all ages wander Milwaukee’s riverwalk, enjoying the all-too-short Wisconsin summer.

People with their backs to camera walk down a riverwalk next to the Milwaukee River, with several boats in the river on the right and buildings with patios full of people on the left.

Photo courtesy of Visit Milwaukee

Such a scene would have been unthinkable to a Milwaukee resident in the 1960s, said Milwaukee historian John Gurda.

“If they’d been told that you’d have very expensive housing along the river, that people would be out there in kayaks and paddleboards, that you’d have riverfront restaurant dining, they would have stared at you as if you were crazy,” he said.

Like many cities in the Upper Midwest, Milwaukee grew along the shores of the Great Lakes, concentrated at the confluence of three rivers leading to Lake Michigan: the Milwaukee, Menomonee and Kinnickinnic. The breweries that made Milwaukee famous blossomed along with tanneries, machine shops and other industry. Farms thrived upstream and settlers flocked to the area searching for a better life.

And as in many cities, the industrialists, farmers and residents paid little attention to what they dumped into the water.

black and white photos of city buildings behind a river that is full of debris

Photo courtesy of Historic Photo Collection/Milwaukee Public Library

“It was an open sewer,” said Gurda, noting the Milwaukee River was described in 1881 as “a current-less and yellowish murky stream, with water like oil and an odor combined of the effluvia of a hundred sewers.”

Turning the Tide

That slowly changed over the course of the 20th century, first as the city started treating drinking water and wastewater and later with the passage of the Clean Water Act, which limited what communities and industries can release in waterways.

Today, Milwaukee is a global leader in managing water naturally through a collaborative, watershed-based approach that serves as a model for other cities. But more work remains to be done, and Milwaukee will rely on its collaborative network more than ever in the coming years as it undertakes the largest cleanup effort in Great Lakes history.

Milwaukee’s industrial history offers a mixed blessing regarding water – it led to terrible pollution of our waterways, but it also spawned many water solution businesses that still make their home in the area, including Badger Meter, A. O. Smith Corporation and Kohler Company.

Civic and business leaders, recognizing Milwaukee’s status as a global hub for water technology, founded The Water Council in 2009. We help solve global water challenges by driving freshwater innovation and advancing water stewardship. Although we work with water users and innovators around the world, we are proud to see Milwaukee leading the way in innovation and stewardship to protect our freshwater resources.

Read more in our guest column in Revitalization.