WI-Testing the Waters

MUHS students on the Menominee River, Milwaukee WI

Testing the Waters is a WI water quality monitoring program that began in the 1990’s to utilize citizen science as a tool to measure for water quality in the Milwaukee River Basin. MMSD partnered with Riveredge Nature Center in Newburg to mobilize high school students to annual evaluate the health of these rivers.

Over a dozen schools have participated and many of them for decades. In Wisconsin, our waterways are an extremely valuable resource not only for wildlife but for our recreational use as well. Long term water quality monitoring is a great way to measure the health of our rivers and engage citizens in its stewardship.

At Marquette University High School, environmental science had been doing testing of the Menominee River in Miller Valley for many years since Testing the Waters inception but curriculum and faculty changes at the school eventually led to the removal of water quality monitoring. In 2014, science teacher’s John Azpell (Board Member of LSP) and Joe Meyer (Executive Director of LSP) reinvigorated the program for the 75-100 students that take environmental science at MUHS annually. It is a great way to connect what is being taught in the classroom to how it plays out in an ecological system.

Students measure physical/chemical properties of the water including: average depth, velocity, turbidity (clarity), nitrates, phosphates, fecal coliform bacteria, dissolved oxygen, and biological oxygen demand. One of the highlights of any river experience is the catching and identifying of macro-invertebrates. These bio-indicators include crawfish, mayfly larvae, dragonfly larvae, and leeches to name a few.  Which species are present in the river gives us a unique look at pollution levels in the aquatic system.

This year’s monitoring was particularly interesting because while on the river site, Wisconsin Lutheran College ecology students were doing their fish monitoring of the river. Students, along with their professor, shocked the river which temporarily stuns the fish so they can be netted. Fish are placed in a tank that sits upon a mini-raft. Fish are then identified, measured, and checked for various other indicators.

Each year, selected students with a particular interest in environmental science are allowed to come on a field trip to Riveredge Nature Center to learn even more about water quality testing. Riveredge Nature Center has also partnered with the WI DNR to bring back sturgeon to the Milwaukee River, absent for 100 years because of poor water quality. Students learn how these tests fit into the greater picture of water quality and conservation in the whole Milwaukee River Watershed and health of Lake Michigan.


Lastly, students from over 6 high schools in WI journeyed with Washington County workers to visit Farms that demonstrate various conservation approaches used to increase water quality. Much of the nitrogen and phosphorus that ends up in our rivers comes from agricultural soil erosion, fertilizer, or livestock manure runoff. Examples of conservation techniques shown on the farms were some bio-remediation using buffer strips, water catchment basins, and manure retention ponds. It becomes very clear to students that large scale farming brings with it tremendous consequences and challenges for the health our environment (not to mention human and animal health). Students were then able to explore the vast property of Riveredge Nature Center, part of which is a State Natural Area.

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