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.