Planning For The Future Of The Oak Creek Watershed

Few issues inspire as much passion in South Milwaukee as the Mill Pond. And rightfully so.

This is an iconic piece of our city’s history, an environmental and recreational — and, at one time, economic — resource that has touched thousands of lives over decades.

Ice skating, hot chocolate at the Warming House, first kisses behind the island. Graduation photos near the waterfall. Boating. Fishing. Many of you reading this I am sure have lifelong memories of the Mill Pond and what it used to be.

But this once-proud institution has fallen on hard times. It needs some love, attention and, ultimately, significant investment.

It also needs an effort, I’d argue, that goes well beyond the Mill Pond.

That is why I’m proud to say we’re making progress toward an Oak Creek Watershed study – a plan that takes a holistic look at the 28 square miles of land that ultimately drains into Oak Creek.

Yes, this is about much more than the Mill Pond.

As you can see in this map, the watershed encompasses parts of South Milwaukee, Oak Creek, Franklin, Greenfield, Cudahy and Milwaukee, including the southern part of Mitchell International Airport. Of course, Milwaukee County is a key player here, as so much of the watershed in South Milwaukee is parkland, as is the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District. And so are the passionate and dedicated local groups who have made the Oak Creek watercourse and the Mill Pond their mission: the Friends of the Mill Pond and Restore the Lagoon. Both should get credit for the work they’ve done to invest in watercourse and Mill Pond health.

All are partners in this effort. All are welcome at the table.

Earlier this month, Milwaukee County Supervisor Pat Jursik and I organized a meeting of these and other key watershed stakeholders to begin dialog around doing an Oak Creek watershed study. The meeting provided the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission — which would conduct the study in partnership with a third-party group focused on education and outreach – with feedback on just what the planning effort should entail. Now, SEWRPC will be coming back to us in coming weeks with a scope of work and cost estimates for what will likely be a two-year study.

Indeed, these restoration plans are no small undertaking.

They are comprehensive efforts that take a scientific approach to watershed health, ultimately delivering clear recommendations around the environmental, aesthetic, engineering and recreational enhancements we need to make to Oak Creek.

Such a comprehensive watershed plan hasn’t been done in almost 30 years, and I’d argue we can not — nor should not — spend significant dollars in improving the health and vibrance of this waterway without having the scientific data and community input that this process will yield. A plan will also give clear recommendations and cost estimates for projects up and down the creek, and then we can move ahead with the heavy lifting necessary to make improvements.

Of course, this approach will include a detailed look at options for the Mill Pond and the dam. It has to.

Should the dam stay? Should it go? Is there some middle ground? And, if it does stay, what might that area look like? My vision: Ice skating in the winter, paddle boats and kayaks in the summer, buying ice cream and hot chocolate at the Warming House, more accessible and higher quality fishing, nature trails, a clear connection with downtown. But that’s just my vision.

We need a collaborative approach here – one informed by what the study. Doing it this way will ensure we know how improvements to one part of the creek impact the entire watershed, the pond and dam included. It will force answers to some hard questions. It will get us thinking about the broader picture, about how upstream changes might impact the creek downstream, and vice versa.

Then, once we’ve begun to answer those questions, the real work starts.

Plans can’t sit on shelves and collect dust. We’ve all seen too many of those. This plan, any plan, needs the right people to act on its recommendations. It takes political will. That is why I promise to partner with other stakeholders to take the results of the study and push to bring its recommendations to life through investment in the watershed. We can’t go it alone. Nor should we.

It won’t be easy. It won’t be cheap. It won’t happen overnight.

But this approach will ultimately deliver what’s best for the entire watershed.

Supervisor Jursik started this work several years ago, and I give her significant credit for doing so. She is a passionate advocate for the South Shore and continues to provide strong leadership here.

Going forward, I’m proud to join her in playing a role to move us ahead … ultimately helping lead us to a more promising future for the entire Oak Creek Watershed, South Milwaukee included.

Stay tuned.


Filed under Mill Pond, Milwaukee County, Oak Creek, Parks, South Milwaukee

7 responses to “Planning For The Future Of The Oak Creek Watershed

  1. Betsy A.

    The plans for Grant Park and now the Oak Creek watershed bode well for our community. I think most people are aware of the water quality and runoff issues, but less so of the interesting – and yes, challenging – options for renewal and repair. I’m hopeful that the educational value of the watershed plan will carry through to our current and future (read: our children) generations. Thanks to our city for pursuing this planning, and to our county for the upgrades to one of the most beautiful parks in the system.

  2. Russ Sobolik

    Maybe nature is showing what should be done at the mill pond. Look at what you see. Let the river run free to the lake with out the dam and have a pond in front of the boat house fed by the river near the island.

  3. Rick

    Is no pond or dam a bad thing?

    • Laura Diamond

      Rick, Yes, no pond is a bad thing for those that like to enjoy the outdoors and ice skate..

      • Rick

        I never see people sitting and enjoying the view of the pond. The County has been removing dams per DNR approval. Removing the dam would eliminate the costly maintenance associated with the pond and allow for the creek to flow naturally to the lake. Water and nature find their best course.

  4. I don’t know how long this blog has been around but I am turning 60 years old this April 2 ,2015 and I spent a few grade school and Jr. High winters back in the mid 1960’s to very early 1970’s ice skating at the “LAGOON” in South Milwaukee….no kid growing up there ever called it the “Mill Pond” If your serious about raising money from folks that have left the area like me then call it by it’s familiar local name …..or people who left that town years ago won’t recognize the formal name it is being called and yes I will donate some money to restore it as it was ,that was a beautiful place to skate on a clear winter night after school and on weekends ,it was free ,fun and a whole community of kids were safe from harm skating there really with very little adults present back then.It was the” go to” place to check out the “cool” kids ,or look for the boy you had a crush on and tell your friend(s) if he was looking back at you! It was a place that only lasted as long as the ice stayed frozen so we made the most of it believe me!…..well when the “Lagoon” ice melted; it was back to CYO and YMCA dances on Friday nights (with a Jr. High dance once in a blue moon)….remember it was a working class town like straight out of that movie “The Deer Hunter” with young guys drafted from the neighborhood during that time into the war in Vietnam, I don’t recall a lot of those guys signing up for college before or after being drafted ever joining a protest against the war. Guys like my brother came back to a job that had moved to a southern state ,eventually more jobs losses lead to revenue cuts ;creating the budget cuts , from my understanding ; causing the neglect in upkeep of the “Lagoon!” I will try to get others to donate to this wonderful cause. I do hope the damn stays and also the “Lagoon” a local historical treasure will continue to exist far into the future. By the way, not only a first kiss may have happened behind the Island; occasionally a sneaky kid passed a single cigarette around to others too naive to know better than to smoke! I could write much more but I am out of time; but I promise to donate some money and urge others to do so also. Sincerely ,Roberta Mandt Lee.

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