By Doug Hissom Special to Published Apr 18, 2007 at 5:07 AM

Milwaukee’s Kinnickinnic River isn’t exactly known as the recreational gem of the metro area. As the city’s third and smallest river it runs under the radar for most of us. At 33 square miles, it doesn’t take up too much space in residents’ back yards and in fact most of it is concrete-lined to keep the water heading to Lake Michigan and out of peoples’ real estate.

The biggest headlines the river has gotten in the past have come from when people have drowned while playing in and near the river after heavy rains.

But the KK is now a nationally recognized river in the eyes of environmental groups -- albeit for the amount of pollution carried in its waters when they run. American Rivers, a Washington, D.C.-based river watchdog group, put the KK on its top ten list of most endangered rivers in the country. In this case, the KK comes in at No. 7 due to various contaminants and pollutants that have been a part of the river’s life since the 1970s. It was also named as one of the federal government’s areas of concern within the last decade, although that designation didn’t lead to any cleanup activity. Fish consumption warnings–indeed a lack of fish, period–are due to PCBs and PAHs from industrial runoff, and polluted storm water run-off as well. 

The KK was once home to a thriving fishing community, but signs of that are nowhere to be found. The KK empties into the Milwaukee harbor sandwiched between one of the more toxic sites left in the city -- the Solvay Coke land -- and an industrial wasteland that is now fenced off and full of rubble.

“In a city that is home to the Brewers, lawmakers at every level of government have allowed the Kinnickinnic River to become a toxic brew of chemicals and pollution,” says American Rivers’ president Rebecca Wodder. “It’s sad to see a river that could be a jewel in the heart of a thriving American metropolis being forced to die a slow, painful death.”

The Friends of Milwaukee’s Rivers nominated the KK for the national endangered list. The Friends once referred to the KK as a public health liability rather than an economic asset.

“The Kinnickinnic was once part of the economic engine that drove Milwaukee’s industrial past. Right now, the river is in transition. Contamination and falling water levels in the river could force marinas and other small businesses to close.” says Cheryl Nenn of Friends of Milwaukee’s Rivers, the group that nominated the KK for its national recognition.  “A cleaned-up Kinnickinnic could be putting money into people’s pockets and make the city a richer place to live in, instead of draining toxic pollution into Lake Michigan.”

There are some clean-up efforts underway to a limited extent:

  • For at least the third year, the Friends of Milwaukee’s Rivers is coordinating a KK River clean up for Earth Day weekend. While strictly a cosmetic effort, the clean-up actually fosters more community awareness as to what an asset the river is as well as raising media concern to the problems as well.
  • The Army Corps of Engineers and the state Department of Natural Resources proposed a plan to remove contaminated sediments in 2004 to the tune of $11 million to $36 million. The groups are examining the feasibility of removing more than 170,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediments from a roughly half mile stretch of the river.
  • The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District is also contemplating an idea that would end some of the concrete-lined channels, which not only rush the contaminated water to the harbor non-stop, but also create dangerous areas in the river.
  • On Saturday, April 21, the annual KK clean-up is set. The event is from 9-noon, and participants are asked to park by the UMOS offices at Chase and Rosedale and register by the bridge. Tools and energy are needed.

American Rivers gives out its annual report of most endangered rivers after thousands of nominations from outdoor and environmental groups around the U.S. The last Wisconsin river to make the list was the Wolf River in northern Wisconsin due to threats from mining activity, which have since gone away.

America’s Most Endangered Rivers of 2007 are: Santa Fe River (NM), San Mateo Creek (CA), Iowa River (IA), Upper Delaware River (NY), White Salmon River (WA), Neches River (TX), Neuse River (NC), Lee Creek (AR, OK), Chuitna River (AK).

Barrett Rapped on Obama: It’s getting so a Milwaukee mayor can’t even endorse a presidential candidate these days without getting flack from both ends of town. Mayor Tom Barrett lent his early support to presidential hopeful Barack Obama prior to his visit on Monday and received prompt criticism from the sheriff and an alderman–but for reasons that really had nothing to do with Obama’s politics.

Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke wasted little time in penning a rather lengthy missive to WTMJ radio guy Charlie Sykes’ Web site (his favorite mode of communication these days) panning Barrett’s support.

“He’s pandering. He’s hoping that wrapping himself around Obama will score points with black voters in his bid for re-election next spring,” Clarke writes, adding his constant criticism that Barrett doesn’t have a handle on the crime problem of the city.

“I would have been more impressed if when asked who his preference for president is Mayor Barrett’s response would have been ... ‘Are you kidding me? My city is dying the death of a thousand cuts right now with all this crime, my public school system is underperforming, people don’t feel safe and that’s all you can ask me? Don’t you want to know about my plan to stop the bleeding and fix this? I don’t have time to think about who the next president might be 21 months from now. My total attention is on the safety of the city and no, I won’t be attending any fundraising events until I have a plan to fix this.’”

Barrett’s Obama endorsement came as the Chicago Tribune released a detailed story on Milwaukee’s rise in crime -- among the leaders in the country. And city Ald. Bob Donovan took the opportunity to rip on Barrett about the issue again.

“Tom Barrett’s a nice guy, and I encouraged him to run for mayor, but I can’t tell you how disappointed I and many others are that he has not acknowledged the crisis in our city, and taken the action that crisis demands” Donovan said in a release. “If public safety is his (mayor’s) number one priority, then he’s sure going about it in a strange way.” 

Doug Hissom Special to
Doug Hissom has covered local and state politics for 20 years. Over the course of that time he was publisher, editor, news editor, managing editor and senior writer at the Shepherd Express weekly paper in Milwaukee. He also covered education and environmental issues extensively. He ran the UWM Post in the mid-1980s, winning a Society of Professional Journalists award as best non-daily college newspaper.

An avid outdoors person he regularly takes extended paddling trips in the wilderness, preferring the hinterlands of northern Canada and Alaska. After a bet with a bunch of sailors, he paddled across Lake Michigan in a canoe.

He lives in Bay View.