Why Care About Our Rivers?


You’re back in high school, sitting at your desk. The teacher is handing back tests, and you’re dreading the moment she reaches you. You close your eyes tightly as you hear the papers plop onto your desk. Slowly, you open one eye, then the other. A big, red “F” comes into focus. There it is, right in front of you – you have failed the test. Shame keeps you from looking up at the others around you. You feel defeated, and wish it was all just a dream. And then, you wake up, suddenly. It really was all just a dream! Relief washes over you, you shake it off and settle into your day, moving on with life as it comes at you.

Life is not so lucky for the Kinnickinnic River, where this dream is an everyday reality. Recently, Milwaukee Riverkeeper, a local nonprofit working to make Milwaukee’s rivers fishable and swimmable again, gave the Kinnickinnic River a failing grade when it comes to water quality. That’s right – a big, fat, red “F” for the KK River. What does this mean for you, and why should you care about this little watershed? Well, it is one of the three rivers that flow through Milwaukee, all of which eventually drain into Lake Michigan. And where do we get our drinking water? From that big, beautiful blue lake that sits right on our shores. So, a failing grade for any of these rivers means that polluted water is reaching the source of life that we all rely on for washing, cooking, fishing, swimming, recreating, cleaning and, of course, drinking.

But what can you do? You’re just one person. You only put a little extra salt on your part of the sidewalk during the icy months. You only forget to pick up after your pet every once in a while. You only let that oil leak from your car for a few weeks, until you could get it fixed.

But, you probably have a family, right? Kids, a spouse, a significant other, a best friend, a cohort of coworkers, roommates, bandmates, soulmates, patients, clients, acquaintances…hundreds of people, if not thousands, that you interact with throughout the year. And each one of those people is probably thinking the same thing…I’m just one person! But we all add up to make this community, and each little bit counts.

Whether that little bit is negative or positive is up to you!

Things you can do that will actually make a difference to improve the KK River’s water quality:

All Year Long:

  1.  Keep trash out of the river! Don’t litter, and teach your friends and family the same. On very windy days, make sure your garbage can’s lid is secure, and pick up trash you see when walking or biking – especially plastic, plastic bags and Styrofoam, which will never fully break down!
  2. Pick up your pet’s waste. Pet waste carries bacteria like E. coli, which can cause pathogens to grow and affect human and animal health. Plus, it’s just good neighborly practice!
  3. Fix your car’s leaks. Anything leaking from your car, like oil, antifreeze or other fluids, eventually drain into storm sewers and our rivers and lakes. Fix these as soon as possible. If you know you can’t get it fixed soon, put down a bucket or mat that will soak up the harmful pollutants coming from your vehicle, and dispose of the waste properly (likely at the city dump).
  4. Don’t feed the geese. Goose droppings contain a lot of phosphorous and nitrogen, which can overwhelm waterbodies, causing algae to grow and create a stinky mess.

In the Fall:

  1. Don’t sweep leaves into the gutter or street, unless your area has a leaf collection program. Leaves release phosphorous, which can increase harmful algae and lower oxygen levels in water, depleting fish and plants of the stuff they need to breathe. Mow over leaves and let them sit on your lawn – they’ll break down faster and provide valuable nutrients to your grass!

In the Winter:

  1. First, shovel early and shovel often, which can prevent ice formation altogether.
  2. Use salt sparingly – use only a coffee mug-full to cover 20 feet of driveway, or 10 sidewalk squares. If it’s too cold out to use salt, then don’t! For example, rock salt won’t work to melt ice below 20 degrees.
  3. Sweep up excess salt – why not reuse that salt again, saving money? What you don’t sweep up will just end up in the rivers and lakes, increasing chloride to dangerous levels and causing fish to die.

Together, we can keep the Kinnickinnic from getting another failing grade!

Want to get started today? Join us at the Spring River Clean Up! April 21st from 9 AM – Noon. More information here: http://sschc.org/events/202/milwaukee-river-keeper-spring-clean-up/

Authored by Kelly Moore Brands, Environmental Project Coordinator

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