Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Fund for Lake Michigan: supporting environmental restoration and innovation


It didn’t take much persuasion. When Vicki Elkin suggested that we go to Three Bridges Park for our photo session I jumped at it eagerly. The park is one of several projects in the Menomonee Valley that have been made possible in part by grants from the Fund for Lake Michigan, which Elkin administers. As regular followers of this blog know, it is also one my favorite places in the Valley.

We stroll between the contoured slopes of park hills that rise from a formerly flat rail yard. Fresh green grasses and newly planted seedlings emerge from burlap staked down to prevent erosion during this fragile stage in the process of vegetating the park. A row of boxcars sits idle on one of the remaining tracks adjacent to the park. The human hand in creating what eventually will become natural-seeming habitat is everywhere apparent. It’s an example of what I like to think of as “intelligent design” and an appropriate setting to talk about Elkin’s role as Executive Director of the Fund for Lake Michigan as well as the variety of environmental, scientific and technological projects it has enabled. (A photo essay of 3 Bridges Park development follows.)

The Fund’s mission is to provide financial support for efforts to improve the health of our Great Lake, which includes both the shoreline and tributary watersheds. The Fund focuses primarily on projects in Southeastern Wisconsin and the Menomonee Valley has particular appeal. “So much is happening in the Valley that generates interest in projects here,” Elkin tells me. “There’s a lot of buzz and we have great partners like the Urban Ecology Center, the Water Council, MMSD and the Menomonee Valley Partners.”

Moreover, she says, “the Valley projects are a microcosm of the types of projects we like to fund where you’re making improvements to water quality and supporting demonstration projects, but also having an economic impact. The fact that we’ve been able to support both habitat restoration and innovative stormwater projects is perfect for us.”

In addition to Three Bridges Park the Fund has contributed to several other Valley projects and plans for more in the future. Elkin describes some of them for me.

The green roof at the Global Water Center “isn’t just any ordinary green roof,” she assures me, “it’s a research lab monitored by the UWM School of Freshwater Sciences to test what works best under what conditions.”

Two industrial-sized rain barrels have been installed under the 35th Street viaduct that will capture and filter 68,000 gallons of rainwater a year, reducing the amount of polluted runoff flowing into the Menomonee River.

At the Reed Street Yards a number of innovative stormwater initiatives are “pushing the envelope of systems for capturing rain and filtering stormwater.” One of the goals of the Reed Street Yards development, as in other parts of the Valley, is to capture all stormwater on site. (A photo essay of the Reed Street Yards development follows.)

Upstream on the Menomonee River Milwaukee Riverkeeper and MMSD are working to remove impediments to fish, such as concrete weirs and low dams. This will not only improve the river for fish habitat but also for the human visitors that already have made the Valley a popular destination for fishing.

Finally, the project that has me as excited as it does Elkin is the proposed Burnham Canal restoration. This disused canal is one of few remaining that once provided barges and other watercraft access to businesses throughout the Valley. Currently “it’s an eyesore and a liability,” as Elkin puts it. The project is intended to restore the concrete-lined, polluted canal to sustainable wetland wildlife habitat. “I think it has the potential to be transformative,” says Elkin, “and could be an example for other parts of the Great Lakes of how to do restoration in a highly urbanized, industrial area.”

The Burnham Canal project also exemplifies visionary leadership as well as the momentum of revitalization in the Menomonee Valley. “It’s a Superfund site now,” Elkin tells me. “The canal could just be capped and otherwise left as is, but there’s so much happening throughout the Valley that it seems right for this to be the next area for revitalization.  I really commend MMSD for putting forward a bold vision for restoration of the site.” Building upon the success of Three Bridges Park, “we can bring nature to the east end of the Valley, turn liability into an asset.”

I ask about the Global Water Center, which is where the Fund’s office is located at the downtown edge of the Menomonee Valley. “I love it!” is her enthusiastic reply. “Watching the Water Council and water cluster develop first hand is inspiring. There’s a lot of interaction and positive energy, creativity and people excited to work together. It’s refreshing for me to work in such a strong community.” She finds it exciting to work with the people who “are at the cutting edge of the types of projects and innovative water quality technologies we’re funding.”

As we wrap up our session at Three Bridges Park Elkin points across the Menomonee River. There, in contrast with the newly refurbished riverfront of the park, the north bank stands in wild abandon. Thickets of buckthorn and other invasive species create a dense snarl. Clearing the bank of invasives and extending the park trail along the north bank is a planned future project, she says, and the Fund for Lake Michigan is ready to make a contribution.

Elkin grew up in Chicago and identifies with Milwaukee and particularly the Menomonee Valley. Her father, an urban planner, worked on redevelopment of Chicago’s inner city neighborhoods. “I like Milwaukee’s mix of cultures, having industrial and residential neighborhoods near each other and seeing that what’s happening here really makes a difference in people’s lives. We’ve got it all here in the Valley.”

Two short photo essays of Fund for Lake Michigan projects:

Three Bridges Park

Reed Street Yards

View from Sixth Street 2006
March 2014


For more information go to the Fund for Lake Michigan website.

This post is one in a series that relates to my Menomonee Valley Artist in Residency. For more information about the residency and links to previous posts and photographs, go to MV AiR.

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