A Community Effort

Cleans Up the Kinnickinnic River

Restoring Milwaukee’s Kinnickinnic River is helping to reduce flooding risks, improve public safety, provide a home for fish and wildlife, and bring families back to their neighborhood river.


The south side neighborhoods that border the Kinnickinnic River in Milwaukee are in the middle of a transformation that is improving the health of the River and the neighborhood. The Kinnickinnic River was placed into a concrete channel in the 1960s, and had a long history of overflowing these artificial banks. The River was also seen more as a dangerous and polluted liability and less as a resource that would draw people to enjoy it. To address these problems, organizations serving Milwaukee’s south side in conjunction with the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, came up with a plan. First and foremost, the river would need to be returned to a more natural, meandering state, allowing for flood events on the banks of the river, and providing habitat for aquatic life. To accomplish this, 56 houses immediately adjacent to the stream channel have been purchased and demolished to make room for the expanded riverbanks, and another 27 are planned for acquisition. Secondly, nearby residents needed to better understand their role in improving and protecting their neighborhood river. They have begun by leading neighborhood cleanups, installing rain gardens and rain barrels to capture stormwater—keeping it from directly running into the Kinnickinnic. Currently, 40 residents have installed rain gardens and swales in their yards to slow rainwater, and the Sewerage District has donated 100 rain barrels to collect rain for later use.

Resource Challenges Addressed

  • Flooding
  • No natural river flow with pools and riffles
  • No access to nearby outdoor recreation

Results and Accomplishments

More work is yet to be done, but so far an aging bridge that restricted the flow of the Kinnickinnic was restructured, the downstream channel has been widened and concrete has been removed. Neighborhood residents have implemented active stormwater management practices such as using rain barrels and planting rain gardens, and designed and built a pocket park next to the river. Because of these changes, more aquatic life has returned to the river, flood risks have been reduced, residents will have new green space near the channel to enjoy the Kinnickinnic, and a neighborhood has a better understanding of how they impact their watershed.


A rain barrel and garden at a house in the Milwaukee neighborhood the Kinnickinnic River runs through.

A rain barrel attached to a downspout collects the rain, helping to minimize flooding during heavy rain. Photo credit: Sixteenth Street Community Health Center.

The Kinnickinnic before restoration had cement riverbanks and was treated like an open drain.

The Kinnickinnic River before the naturalization effort expanded the banks of the river, allowing it to meander. Photo credit: Sixteenth Street Community Health Center.

Restored Kinnickinnic River with stones and a flood plain runs near a neighborhood in Milwaukee.

This portion of the Kinnickinnic River is fully naturalized. It can now manage flood- waters while being a beautiful amenity to the neighborhood. Photo credit: Sixteenth Street Community Health Center.