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Floods, Riverlands and Trail Building

by Vince Bushell, photos by Ellie Kirkwood It was the wettest July on record in Milwaukee (over 10 inches officially). Over half the rain that fell in most areas fell on Thursday July 22. Much of this deluge fell within an hour. With the ground saturated from the storm just a week before, the runoff and flooding was dramatic. Upstream from Wisconsin Paperboard on the East Bank Trail, the foot bridge resembles a fun house entrance after being knocked off its foundation by the force of water exitingthe deep tunnel sewer outfall it crosses. You have read and heard the stories of flooded basements and a sink hole on North and Oakland. The Riverwest Co-op and many homes and businesses were without power for extended periods. But there is more. Unless you have hiked along the Milwaukee River you may not know the effect this storm had on the landscape of our river lands. Mud slides covered and threatened paths in Riverside Park and along the East Bank Trail. Caesar’s Park has a scar on the slope just downstream of the pedestrian bridge. The landscape shows the extent and speed of the water hat rose well above the normal horeline. The grasses and plants in the lowlands lay flattened. Trees have fallen in the river and down the slopes and across the paths upstream in Gordon Park, Kern Park, Estabrook Park, and Hubbard Park as well as beyond and between. Large quantities of stone, silt and sand filled low areas as the slopes carried rushing water down and left their burden in piles. Some of these piles are neatly sorted by size with the heavy stones dropped first and the smallest carried down the hills and laid down close to the river and into the water. Nature does heal her own scars. Trail users and the Milwaukee County Parks Department crews will have to open up blocked paths and they have begun to do so already. These storms are referred to as century events. If climate change is here we may see them much more often. A summer crew from the Earn and Learn program has hauled gravel and soil to fix the log stairs built by an Eagle Scout last year. They were damaged by erosion from the massive flood waters coming down Wright Street. As before and continuing after these floods, River Revitalization Foundation’s efforts to revitalize the landscape will go on. Invasive species will be removed and hundreds more native trees and plants will be planted this year and in the years ahead. The Beer Line Trail, a bicycle and pedestrian trail is being built as you read this. The trail leads from Gordon Park down to the Wheel House site that will be turned into a park. Hopefully this improved access to the river will make more people aware of this resource. The trails will be built to ADA (American Disabilities Act) standards, so ll will be able to enjoy the river. County employees who are supervising the construction, and the construction firm doing the work for the County, believe there should be no additional threat of erosion due to this trail construction. They indicated that steps will be taken to direct water flow coming off of the street grid to areas best able to handle storm runoff. The Beer Line Trial is a County trail and wil become part of the Oak Leaf Trail system. Milwaukee County will be responsible for maintaining these new trails and all County owned park lands. The County may need more help in keeping up with maintenance with tight budgets that are sure to be around for a long time. Nonprofit organizations are providing much-needed support for the river revolution that is going on. Partnerships old and new will grow. Despite the floods, the environment, the habitats and the recreational opportunities along the urban Milwaukee River will continue to improve.