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Sturgeon were native to both the Milwaukee River and Lake Michigan. The DNR has been stocking fingerlings and some adult sturgeon for several years now. This adult sturgeon, which can reach 5 ft. in length, was released in October of 2005 in Kern Park.

Groundswells and Ripples: The Community and the River

Unlike the lengthy waterways of Green Bay and Chicago, the rivers of Milwaukee do not go much of anywhere. You can’t get to New Orleans or even Madison by canoe from here, but you can dock a really big boat. “The port of Milwaukee has the broadest bay and deepest channels on the western shores of Lake Michigan,” observed local author John Gurda while summarizing the history of our city through the lens of its three rivers. Gurda was speaking last month to Milwaukee’s first ever “Urban Rivers Conference,” which was held in the Pilot House at Discovery World, a three storey high tower which offers outdoor, panoramic views of Lake Michigan to the east, Veterans Park to the north, Downtown to the west, and the Jones Island sewerage treatment plant to the south. It was a fitting setting for the more than 100 attendees, because the main topics of the day were freshwater resources, parks, development, and pollution. It was a local polluter that had funded most of the conference’s expenses. In 1990 a Clean Water Act lawsuit was brought against Stroh Die Casting, alleging that its foundry on the northwest side was discharging untreated melted aluminum into Milwaukee’s freshwater. As part of the settlement from that case, Stroh agreed to set aside $30,000 to fund the conference, which was held October 6. Before Gurda had a chance to explain how Milwaukee went from being a wild rice swamp to major metropolis in less than 200 years, Dale Olen of the Sierra Club took everyone back even further in time, before Native Americans first discovered the rice marshes thousands of years ago, and before the Earth itself was formed billions of years ago. Oxygen was created in the heart of stars burning hydrogen. Water was first created after the fiery explosion of a supernova, where the H combined with the O to create H2O. The result was ice locked in globs of cosmic dust that over time combined with other elements to form our earth. At first our world did not have surface water. It took a series of volcanoes to release the inner ice as steam, which eventually condensed into the rivers, lakes and oceans which now cover more than 70% of the globe. “This water,” explained Olen, “through all its motion, gives the earth life and gives you life.” He was quick to point out, however, that its current earthly supply was all we’ve got. “There is a limit to growth,” he warned the crowd, as a slide behind him recounted that the average American used 101 gallons of water per day. That Milwaukee’s abundant – but finite – supply of freshwater was mistreated for decades was not disputed by anyone at the conference. Ann Brummitt, Coordinator of the Milwaukee River Work Group, recalled a time not many years ago when only “suckers, carp, and goldfish” could survive in the murky, industrial and urban sludge of the Milwaukee River. Now, according to Will Warzyn, a DNR fisheries biologist, there are more than 37 fish species in the river, which is getting cleaner every day. The recovery of the north side’s waterway – which cuts through downtown after dividing Riverwest from the East Side, and winding through the North Shore suburbs on its way from its headwaters near Sheboygan – has created increased demand for both public recreation and private development along its banks. Those two desires are not always compatible, and the struggle between them will probably define the future of the Milwaukee River in the coming years. “Fisher people, hikers, and mountain bikers have already found the corridor,” explained Gurda, before predicting that “other urban explorers” soon would. He then pointed out that “as condos creep further and further north,” other plans were originating in the community to create a version of Manhattan’s Central Park along the banks of the river from North Avenue up to the city limits. Brummitt, as the coordinator of the MRWG (Milwaukee River Work Group), has helped create and organize that community vision, which is described in a working paper called “Milwaukee’s Central Park,” published with the help of Currents’ staff. The major goal of the MRWG is to limit development in the valley or on the bluffs, thus protecting the environmental corridor and allowing recreational users of the river and its woodsy trails to have an expierience that is separate from the urban landscape in middle of our city. Gurda recalled a time, less than a century ago, when for 15 cents you could take a boat ride to a series of swimming beaches and beer gardens from North Avenue to Capitol Drive, including some vessels that offered moonlight dancing atop the flowing waters. “It’s easy to be a little envious of our ancestors,” he admitted. Warzyn, a third generation Riverwester, recalled his childhood days when he would fish off a pier in Pleasant Valley Park, and sometimes even throw rocks at the East Side boys across the river. During the panel discussion, however, he was quick to describe the non-human benefits of a pristine river. “The river corridor is very important as an environmental corridor,” he said, “because the link between land and water contains a lot of our species diversity.” Brummitt claimed that the MRWG has obtained “grass roots power and credibility in numbers,” and that an upcoming series of community workshops will help clarify its goals and emphasize its broad support. Vince Bushell, an MRWG member (and the publisher of the Riverwest Currents) then asked Ann Beier, the Director of Sustainability for the City of Milwaukee, to explain the city’s position. Beier responded that the Common Council and the Mayor have already approved an interim overlay study district for the river, which will determine setback and height limits for any development. “The City,” she said, “was responding to a groundswell of support.” “That having been said,” she then qualified, “it’s a planning process that will take about a year. We have to determine what’s best for the community and the river.” Gurda, meanwhile, encouraged everyone in attendance to reach out to friends and neighbors about the importance of protecting Milwaukee’s waterways. “We all have constituencies and networks,” he said, before making an apt analogy between such human networks and water itself: “It can have a ripple effect.” {tab=Milwaukee River Work group}The Milwaukee River Work Group (MRWG) is a coalition of organizations concerned with the Milwaukee River, including representatives from the Urban Ecology Center, Friends of Milwaukee’s Rivers, and River Revitalization Foundation, along with other state and federal agencies, businesses and individuals. {tab=Community Workshops}Community Workshops hosted by MRWG and Community Design Solutions: Tuesday, October 30, 6-9 pm Gordon Park Pavilion 2828 North Humboldt Blvd, Milwaukee 53212 Thursday, November 8, 6-9 pm Urban Ecology Center, Community Room 1500 E Park Place Milwaukee 53211{/tabs}