Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) Watercourse Corridor Study

Science Center Objects

Since 2000, the USGS and MMSD have been partners in the Milwaukee Area Watercourse Corridor Study. The USGS applied a multi-disciplinary approach to monitor and assess stream water quality within studies of aquatic communities, geomorphology and habitat, water and sediment, and streamflow. Results are provided to MMSD and watershed management agencies for planning and decision-making.

Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) logo

The Watercourse Corridor Study (Corridor Study) is a cooperative effort between the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), in coordination with the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (SEWRPC), U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and local universities. Together, these partners are collecting and evaluating hydrologic, geographic, physical, biological, and chemical data for the major waterways and their adjacent corridors within MMSD’s service area. This information supports the goals outlined in MMSD’s Water Quality Monitoring Program and Facility Plans:

  1. To monitor the biological, chemical, and physical characteristics of aquatic ecosystems (within the MMSD service area) to assess the impacts of stream improvement practices
  2. To monitor the water quality of Lake Michigan harbors and local waterways within the MMSD service area
  3. To provide physical, chemical, and biological data on the quality of water, wastewater, and sediment and how it relates to MMSD’s operations and facilities
  4. To maintain a historical water quality database

The USGS project for the MMSD Corridor Study consists of five phases:

  • Phase I (2000–2003): Development of a baseline inventory database and selection of potential areas for future study to support the evaluation of the impacts of MMSD projects.
  • Phase II (2004–2005): Conducting an intensive data-collection effort to fill gaps identified in Phase I and to update historical data.
  • Phase III (2006–2010): Development of additional areas of study based on Phase II analysis and continued streamflow measurement and maintenance of the database system.
  • Phase IV (2011–2015): Extending areas of study for more in-depth understanding of biology and water quality.
  • Phase V (2016–2020): Extending additional areas of study for more in-depth understanding of biology and water quality. The objectives of the Phase V activities are to build upon information obtained during Phases I through IV by extending the study of influences on stream biology and geomorphology, biological and water-quality impacts from watershed and infrastructure influences, evaluation of restoration activities, measurement of streamflow, evaluation of toxic contaminants, dynamics of short-term water-quality changes, and water-quality trends over time.
Downtown Milwaukee with crew row boat

A solo crew boat rows along on the Milwaukee River in downtown Milwaukee.

View of Lake Michigan from beach

The Lake Michigan shoreline at Milwaukee, Wis.


During the current 5-year study period for Phase V (2016-2020), the following four topics are being addressed by one or more USGS subprojects:

1.    Ecological Assessments and Trends
       a.    Ecological Assessments and Trends at 15 Core Stream Sites
       b.    Bioavailable PCBs and PAHs at 15 Core Stream Sites
2.    Geomorphology and Sediment Studies Related to Stream and Estuary Rehabilitation
       a.    Pre- and Post-rehabilitation Stream Geomorphic and Habitat Assessments
       b.    Characterization of Potential Channel Habitat Units through Stream Network-Wide Geomorphic Characterization
       c.    Milwaukee River Estuary Geomorphology, Hydrodynamics, and Habitat
       d.    Instream Sources of Sediment and Phosphorus and Effects on Stream and Estuary Rehabilitation
3.    Contaminants in Water and Sediment
       a.    Evaluation and Trends of PAH Source Contributions in Lake and Stream Sediments
       b.    Microplastics in Milwaukee-Area Streams
       c.    Hydrologic and Temporal Dynamics of Wastewater Contamination Using Dissolved Organic Matter
       d.    Hydrologic and Seasonal Variation in Waterborne Pathogen Loadings
       e.    Water-Quality Trends in Milwaukee-Area Streams and Jones Island Streamflow
4.    Continuous Real-Time Streamflow

Map showing planning area, sites, and major rivers of the MMSD Watercourse Corridor Study

U.S. Geological Survey sampling sites in the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District planning area for Phase V of the Watercourse Corridor Study (2016-2020). Sites are shown for core ecology, microplastics, optical sensored, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), pre- and post-rehabilitation, realtime streamflow, virus, and water quality trends. Geomorphology sites include core ecology and rehabilitation sites. Twelve sites are outside the planning area and are not shown on the map (7 PAH sites in Dane County, Wisconsin; 1 core ecology site and 4 rehabilitation sites in southeastern Wisconsin). (Credit: Jana Stewart, USGS)

Phase I (2000–2003):  A Baseline Inventory database was created to support the evaluation of the impacts of MMSD projects.  This database supported the MMSD’s ability to obtain regulatory permits and approvals, assists in project design, and improved project coordination.  An internet-accessible Oracle database was developed and populated with MMSD data and other data, including the USGS National Water Information System (NWIS), Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) biology and chemistry data, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chemistry data, and the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (SEWRPC) digital floodplain-mapping project.

Phase II (2004–2005): USGS completed an intensive data-collection effort to fill in data gaps that were identified in Phase I and to update historical data.  The baseline analysis aided MMSD in defining existing characteristics of the streams and served as the basis for future impact evaluations and trend analyses.

Phase III (2006–2010): This phase consisted of a combination of baseline efforts and specific study topics addressing needs that were identified during Phases I & II. Baseline efforts included database continuation and flow measurement at 5 streams. Specific study topics included data collection and interpretation for biological water-quality assessment, microbiological investigations, aquatic toxicity assessments, and evaluation of emerging contaminants in Milwaukee area waterways.

Phase IV (2011–2015): This phase included more in-depth study for biology and water quality, including biological and habitat assessment and trends, geomorphology and hydrology assessments, continuous real-time streamflow at five sites, microbiological investigations and modern methods for detecting wastewater contamination, trends in stream chloride concentrations due to road salt applications, and evaluation of the sources of toxic PAH contaminants in Milwaukee area streams. USGS also assisted MMSD in determining options for evolving the database capabilities and incorporating existing online tools (STORET and Water Quality Portal) to eliminate the need for custom database applications while still providing web-accessible data.

Phase V (2016–2020): Results are in progress