Ecological Status of Aquatic Communities in Selected Streams in the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District Planning Area of Wisconsin, 2004–13

Scientific Investigations Report 2020-5035
Prepared in cooperation with the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District
By: , and 



A total of 14 wadable streams in urban or urbanizing watersheds near Milwaukee, Wisconsin, were sampled in 2004, 2007, 2010, and 2013 to assess the ecological status of aquatic communities (biota), including benthic algae and invertebrates, and fish. To assess temporal variation, additional community sampling was also done at a subset of three sites in 2011 and 2012. Relative abundances of each type of organism were used to calculate biological metrics, such as richness and diversity, percentages of intolerant and tolerant organisms, and indexes of biotic integrity for invertebrates and fish. Selected environmental (physical and chemical) data in the streams were collected to evaluate potential relations to the biota and the ecological health of the stream. Physical and chemical data included land use/land cover, stream discharge from U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) streamgages (except at 2 creeks that were not gaged), stream habitat, microhabitat at invertebrate collection locations, water quality (except at 2 creeks that were not gaged), field measurements of several water-quality constituents, measures of benthic algal biomass, and toxicity and chemical tests on extracts from passive samplers deployed at a subset of 6 sites. Relative abundances of organisms and biological metrics were compared among sampling years and with environmental metrics to evaluate the ecological status of these streams and determine primary stressors on the aquatic communities, with the aim of helping resource managers understand and work toward improving the ecological health of these and other urban and urbanizing rivers in the study area.

Biological metrics for most sites indicated some level of diminished ecological status when compared across all sampled sites and when compared with rating scales for selected metrics. The least degraded sites among all those sampled—indicated by aggregate bioassessments for algae, invertebrates, and fish metrics and in order starting with the best overall condition—were the Milwaukee River near Cedarburg, Menomonee River at Menomonee Falls, Jewel Creek, and Milwaukee River at Milwaukee. The most degraded sites were Menomonee River at Wauwatosa, Root River at Greenfield, Lincoln Creek, and the Kinnickinnic River. Differences in aggregate bioassessments indicate that aquatic communities at the Menomonee River at Wauwatosa site and the Root River at Greenfield site were worse in 2013 than in 2004; however, Oak Creek and Honey Creek sites were better. In 2013, several sites had less than 30-percent pollution-sensitive diatoms indicating degraded algal assemblages. Invertebrate metrics for most of the 14 sites in 2013 were lower than in 2004 and indicate that invertebrate assemblages at most sampled sites were more degraded in 2013. Tolerant fish taxa made up more than 40 percent of assemblages at most sites and nearly 100 percent of assemblages at four sites. At times, in some smaller streams, too few fish were captured to compute an Index of Biotic Integrity with confidence, and invertebrates provided a better means for assessing the ecological status and water quality. With these few exceptions, the use of all three groups of biota provided the most robust assessments at the 14 sites in 2004–13.

Physical and chemical stressors were correlated to adverse effects on aquatic biota at the sampled streams. Passive samplers were deployed at a subset of six sites in 2013. Microtox results indicated there was little or no toxicity at the Milwaukee River near Cedarburg site and at the Oak Creek site, slight toxicity at the Lincoln Creek and Honey Creek sites, and moderate toxicity at the Milwaukee River at Milwaukee site and the Little Menomonee River site; however, based on cytochrome-P450 reporter gene system toxicity tests, potential toxicity from hydrophobic organic contaminants was measured at all six sites. For all 14 sites, physical and chemical stressors related to urbanization correlated with biological metrics for algae, invertebrates, and fish. Most stressors for aquatic biota reflected an urban signature. Stressors related to ecological condition in our study were chemical and physical, such as developed land, impervious surface in the watershed, urban land in a buffer area around the stream (a 100-foot [30-meter]-wide area on each side of the stream, and maximum instantaneous discharge normalized by drainage area (a measure of flood and scour effects). Chemical stressors included low waterborne concentrations of dissolved oxygen and high concentrations of chloride, zinc and other metals, nutrients (nitrite and phosphorus), and fecal coliform bacteria.

Although algae, invertebrates, and fish did not always demonstrate a significant response to the same stressors, higher abundances of high total phosphorus-indicator diatoms, lower ratings for invertebrate biotic integrity indexes and percentages of mayflies-stoneflies-caddisflies, and lower values for fish biotic integrity indexes underscored possible adverse effects of even low levels of developed land. Developed land is typically associated with more rapid runoff, which washes chemicals from impervious surfaces into area waterways and degrades stream habitat for aquatic communities. However, with respect to at least chloride from road salt, diatoms tolerant to dissolved salts were significantly lower with as little as 1-percent mixed forest in the watershed. Lower percentages of urban land in the stream buffer correlated with healthier aquatic assemblages of algae, invertebrates, and fish. The assessment of algal, invertebrate, and fish assemblages coupled with physical and chemical data were highly useful in evaluating the ecological status of aquatic communities at the 14 sites and for determining environmental stressors that may be contributing to reduced stream condition. Some of the stressors could potentially be removed or lessened with stream rehabilitation or changes in watershed management.

Suggested Citation

Scudder Eikenberry, B.C., Nott, M.A., Stewart, J.S., Sullivan, D.J., Alvarez, D.A., Bell, A.H., and Fitzpatrick, F.A., 2020, Ecological status of aquatic communities in selected streams in the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District planning area of Wisconsin, 2004–13: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2020–5035, 84 p.,

ISSN: 2328-0328 (online)

Study Area

Table of Contents

  • Acknowledgments
  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Methods
  • Assessment of Aquatic Communities in Relation to Stream Condition
  • Summary and Conclusions
  • References Cited
Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title Ecological status of aquatic communities in selected streams in the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District planning area of Wisconsin, 2004–13
Series title Scientific Investigations Report
Series number 2020-5035
DOI 10.3133/sir20205035
Year Published 2020
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Reston, VA
Contributing office(s) Upper Midwest Water Science Center
Description Report: viii, 84 p.; Data Release; Dataset
Country United States
State Wisconsin
Other Geospatial Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District Planning Area
Online Only (Y/N) Y
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
Additional publication details