Milwaukee Watershed

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Hydrologic Unit Code: 04040003

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Watershed Overview

The Milwaukee River Basin encompasses almost 870 square miles of land in portions of Dodge, Fond du Lac, Milwaukee, Ozaukee, Sheboygan, Washington, and Waukesha counties. The southern quarter of the basin is the most densely populated area in the state, holding 90% of the basin’s population, which is approximately 1.3 million people. The watershed includes 6 watersheds, 3 of them containing the Milwaukee River from start to finish. They are the Milwaukee River North, Milwaukee River East-West, and the Milwaukee River South. The other three watersheds, Cedar Creek, the Menominee River, and Kinnickinnic River are named after the rivers they contain. Collectively, the six watersheds contain about 500 miles or perennial streams, over 400 miles of intermittent streams, 35 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline, 57 names lakes, and many small lakes and ponds.

Some streams have the ability to support trout populations. Others have spring and fall runs of stocked trout and salmon. Fishing opportunities also exist in the rivers and harbors for Northern Pike, Smallmouth Bass, and Walleye.

The Milwaukee Estuary Area of Concern (AOC) encompasses 57.5 square kilometers, or 2.6%, of the entire basin, including lands that drain directly to the AOC via storm sewers and combined sewer systems. This relatively small drainage area contributes a disproportionately large amount of pollutants associated with urban runoff. Runoff from specific and diffuse sources, contaminated sediment, and habitat degradation (such as channelization and dams) has degraded water quality throughout the basin. Cladaphora algae are also becoming a problem in shoreline areas.

The basin includes the Southeast Glacial Plains, Southeast Lake Michigan Coastal and Northern Lake Michigan Ecological Landscapes. Maple-Basswood is the most common forest type in the basin. The tree species with the greatest volume in the basin is Ash, followed by Hard Maple, Basswood, Soft Maple, and Red Oak. Grasslands are promoted through prescribed burning and mowing.

Typical wildlife in the watershed includes White-tailed Deer, Ring-necked Pheasant, Waterfowl, Geese, Gray and Flying Squirrels, Raccoons, Woodchucks, Great Horned Owls, a variety of hawks, songbirds, and shorebirds. The National Heritage Inventory has documented 16 endangered, 26 threatened, and 65 special concern plant and animal species. In addition, 30 rare aquatic and terrestrial communities have been identified within the basin.

Recreational opportunities include wildlife watching, hiking, fishing, hunting, bicycling, horseback riding, snowmobiling, skiing, camping, picnicking, and water sports.

The [Nature Conservancy] has identified the East Branch of the Milwaukee River and the Kettle-Moraine Lakes as having important groundwater/wetland fed headwater streams in ice contact, end moraine, and critical kettle moraine lakes. The Milwaukee River Mainstem has critical moderate groundwater mainstems on till/lake plain and headwaters in ice contact/end moraine.

Between 1996 and 2001, there has been a slight increase in developed land, farmland, forest, and bare land, and a slight decrease in grassland and wetland.

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Watershed Activities

The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District is a leader in developing watershed approaches to the problems associated with managing and urbanized watershed. In particular, the MMSD is focusing on a number of watershed based projects with the goal of reducing the number and frequency of combined sewer overflows.

In place pollutants are the main cause of the water quality problems in the watershed. Runoff from urban areas, floodplain development, and agriculture has been the main contributors. As the population moves to more rural areas, groundwater quantity and quality issues will become important.

The following are some of the watershed objectives:

  • Preservation of biodiversity and protection of endangered and threatened species through habitat preservation
  • Prioritize education as a major component to watershed activities
  • Develop plans to restore concrete lined streams to more natural systems.
  • Monitor wildlife populations, water quality, and ecosystem function to understand the status, trends and resources

In addition to the above objectives, the MMSD is purchasing headwater areas to protect them from development to control runoff. Milwaukee County Parks is planning to stabilize and reconstruct approximately 0.25 miles of trail and vernal streambank, remove invasive exotic plant species, install erosion control geotextile, plant trees shrubs and herbaceous plugs, and hold two single day volunteer events a year to educate residents on the issues of erosion, invasive species, and native plantings.

Milwaukee Estuary Area of Concern

The Milwaukee Estuary Area of Concern (AOC) is located in the Milwaukee River watershed and includes: the lower 5 km of the Milwaukee River downstream of North Avenue Dam; the lower 4.8 km of the Menomonee River downstream of 35th Street; the lower 4 km of the Kinnickinnic River downstream of Chase Avenue; the inner and outer Harbor and the nearshore waters of Lake Michigan, bounded by a line extending north from Sheridan Park to the city of Milwaukee's Linnwood water intake. The immediate area draining to the AOC encompasses 57.5 km2 or 2.6 % of the entire basin, including lands that drain directly to the AOC via storm sewers and combined sewer systems. This relatively small drainage area contributes disproportionately large amounts of pollutants associated with urban runoff. The AOC acts as both a source of pollution to Lake Michigan and as a sink for pollutants generated throughout the watershed. Consequently, water quality is affected by pollution sources associated with land use from the entire Milwaukee River drainage basin.

The Milwaukee Estuary was designated an Area of Concern (AOC) in the mid 1980s because of historical modifications and pollutant loads that contributed toxic contaminants to the AOC and Lake Michigan. Sediments contaminated with PCBs, PAHs, and heavy metals contribute to most of the beneficial use impairments within the AOC. The rivers within the AOC were also historically modified (straightened and dredged) to accommodate large vessel commercial shipping. While Milwaukee still maintains a viable commercial port, some of the river reaches within the estuary are no longer maintained through dredging.

Beneficial use impairments include:

  • Restrictions on fish and wildlife consumption
  • Eutrophication or undesirable algae
  • Degradation of fish and wildlife populations
  • Beach closings
  • Fish tumors or other deformities
  • Degradation of aesthetics
  • Bird or animal deformities or reproduction problems
  • Degradation of benthos Degradation of phytoplankton and zooplankton populations
  • Restriction on dredging activities
  • Loss of fish and wildlife habitat

Watershed Groups

For more information, see the USEPA “Surf Your Watershed” website at

The Milwaukee River Basin is part of the Wisconsin DNR’s Milwaukee River basin management area. For more information, see the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ “Wisconsin’s Basins” website at

Additional information is available at Michigan State University's Institute for Water Research's Digital Watershed Tool at: This site has interactive watershed-based information on industrial facilities discharge sites, toxic release inventory, permit compliance system, water quality stations, bacteria stations, national sediment inventory stations, best management practices, water quality observation stations, weather data stations, impaired waters (reach and area), landcover change (1992-2001), landuse 2001, soil, and elevation.

Watershed Data and Information

USGS Water Resources Links for: 04040003 - Milwaukee

USGS State Information and Contacts:

Current Water Data:

All Water Data (Current and Historic Sites):

Other Data Links:

Current Regional/National Conditions:

Search USGS for Links, Publications and Web Sites Associated with:

EPA Links for the Milwaukee - HUC 04040003:

Impaired (303d) Waters

A listing of impaired waters can be found on the U.S. EPA website at: River


Subwatersheds for the Milwaukee River Watershed

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Information on other Lake Michigan subwatersheds can be found at:
HUC Watershed Name
04040003 0101 Nichols Creek
04040003 0102 Mink Creek
04040003 0103 Batavia Creek-North Branch Milwaukee River
04040003 0104 Silver Creek
04040003 0105 Stony Creek
04040003 0106 Lizard Mound State Park
04040003 0107 North Branch Milwaukee River
04040003 0201 Headwaters West Branch Milwaukee River
04040003 0202 Kettle Moraine Lake-Milwaukee River
04040003 0203 West Branch Milwaukee River
04040003 0204 Auburn Lake Creek-Milwaukee River
04040003 0205 Long Lake-East Branch Milwaukee River
04040003 0206 East Branch Milwaukee River
04040003 0207 Village of Kewaskum-Milwaukee River
04040003 0208 Silver Creek-Milwaukee River
04040003 0209 Village of Newburg-Milwaukee River
04040003 0301 Town of Richfield
04040003 0302 Cedar Lake-Cedar Creek
04040003 0303 Jackson Marsh State Wildlife Area-Cedar Creek
04040003 0304 Cedar Creek
04040003 0401 Village of Menominee Falls-Menominee River
04040003 0402 Little Menominee River
04040003 0403 City of Butler-Menominee River
04040003 0404 Underwood Creek
04040003 0405 Menominee River
04040003 0501 Kinnickinnic River
04040003 0601 Fox Point-Frontal Lake Michigan
04040003 0602 Town of Freedonia-Milkwaukee River
04040003 0603 Village of Grafton-Milkwaukee River
04040003 0604 Pigeon Creek-Milwaukee River
04040003 0605 Lincoln Creek
04040003 0606 Milwaukee River