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Metropolitan Milwaukee Sewerage District Leads the Way in Green Infrastructure

Aug. 22, 2017
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A longtime civil engineer, Kevin Shafer used to think about wastewater infrastructure in terms of “straight lines and pipes.” Now, much of what he advocates and oversees as executive director of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Sewerage District involves “green infrastructure”—wide-ranging, sustainable solutions undertaken by governmental agencies as well as individual property owners. Shafer, who joined MMSD as head of engineering in 1998 and was promoted to his current position in 2002, is recognized as a national leader in promoting cutting-edge approaches to water management.

Help Manage Water Where it Falls

Green infrastructure captures, absorbs or stores rain and melting snow. Such efforts also help protect rivers and lakes from water pollution, reduce the risk of basement backups and sewer overflows and keep storm water from becoming someone else’s headache downstream. Certain measures can be taken by homeowners, businesses and governmental entities (see below). By 2035, MMSD intends to develop enough green infrastructure in our region to capture 740 million gallons of water every time it rains. (One inch of rain on MMSD’s service area equals 7.1 billion gallons of water.)

Earlier this month, he spoke on a plenary panel at the City Parks Alliance Biennial Conference in St. Paul, Minn. Other experts addressing “Parks and Water: Partners in the One Water Movement” hailed from Denver, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle. The conference drew more than 1,000 attendees from 200 cities in 40 states and 11 countries. Panelists described how lines are blurring among agencies overseeing utilities and parks—which all cited as a positive trend.

Mami Hara, who heads Seattle Public Utilities, said: “As cities move toward more holistic water policies, water management is land management.” Allegra Haynes, director of Denver’s park system, noted that infrastructure in cities, including green space, has not always been fairly allocated. She asked: “How do we work to right that misallocation?” One benefit of some green infrastructure initiatives is expansion of urban green space. Shafer says these investments also cost less than building more sewers or deep tunnel storage.

How did Milwaukee become a leader in sustainable water management? Shafer said it evolved over time—partly in response to the Clean Water Act of 1972. First came decades of infamous “sewer wars,” including one over who would pay for the massive, expensive “Deep Tunnel” expansion of Milwaukee’s sewer system. Once those issues were resolved in 1996, Shafer says it was possible to move on to flood control efforts—specifically to prevent the public health hazards of residential basement flooding.


Listening to the People

Those flood control efforts have entailed removing concrete channeling within rivers and streams, which was installed during the 1960s. Around 1998, during an MMSD flood-management project involving Lincoln Creek, MMSD staff heard from affected residents about their concerns. As Shafer said, “We needed to open up to what we were hearing.” For example, people wanted to see more natural areas and less concrete, so final designs reflected that.

MMSD began exploring other green infrastructure options in the 2000s, when Shafer said Milwaukee, Portland, Ore., and Seattle were among a few trailblazing American cities. He also began communicating with others around the country, which eventually led him and others in 2008 to found the U.S. Water Alliance, a national nonprofit that “advances policies and programs that build a sustainable water future for all.” Shafer currently chairs the Alliance’s board of directors and says it affords many voices to be heard on water issues.

According to Adel Hagekhalil, assistant director for the City of Los Angeles’ Bureau of Sanitation and immediate past president of the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, “Milwaukee has really led the way for other cities. MMSD has modeled how to collaborate across agencies and with the public on projects that provide multiple benefits, including improved quality of life.” He said that support for investing in green infrastructure grows when people can see tangible outcomes, including more and higher-quality green spaces.

Rob Henken, president of the nonprofit Public Policy Forum, calls MMSD greater Milwaukee’s “de-facto environmental protection agency,” adding that “It’s really remarkable that MMSD has effected a transformation in which it sees itself as having a broader environmental mission than merely treating wastewater. He said that in the course of doing a report about MMSD’s finances, the Public Policy Forum “came to realize that they have a very strong reputation nationally that’s based on innovation and dedication to sustainability and green technology.”


Incentives for Property Owners

MMSD’s other green infrastructure involves providing funding and incentives for interested property owners to install rain barrels to catch and use rainwater and rain gardens designed to capture runoff water. It also has a green infrastructure partnership program which requires a proposal process. In 2017, it awarded $1.5 million in grants to 13 community groups, businesses and municipalities to help pay for rain collection projects, including rooftop gardens, porous pavement and artificial wetlands.

MMSD’s Greenseams program is an “innovative flood management program that permanently protects key lands containing water absorbing soils.” MMSD makes voluntary purchases of undeveloped, privately owned properties in areas expected to have major growth in the next 20 years and open spaces along streams, shorelines and wetlands. This helps prevent future flooding and water pollution while supporting and protecting its structural flood management projects. MMSD is currently protecting more than 3,400 acres through the Greenseams program.

In addition to flood control, green infrastructure reduces pollutants flowing into waterways and Lake Michigan. Other payoffs include more accessible and higher-quality waterways and the creation of more open space. MMSD has engaged with Milwaukee County Parks, which Shafer calls “a phenomenal partner,” as well as the City of Milwaukee and other agencies within its 28-municipality jurisdiction. Recent projects have included the expansion of Valley Park in Wauwatosa, as well as projects on the Milwaukee County Grounds, the Menomonee River Parkway and in Hart Park. It’s now working on a long-term project involving the Kinnickinnic River on the South Side. Work will begin in Pulaski Park next spring, followed by projects in Jackson Park. MMSD is also involved in plans to remove the Estabrook Dam, a structure within the Milwaukee River along Estabrook Park, “as long as we can get necessary approvals,” according to Shafer.

Shafer acknowledges that some projects face controversy “whenever people’s backyards are impacted.” For example, some major initiatives have required cutting down trees, “which is generally not welcomed” by citizens. He says the goal is to avoid felling any trees that have a 20-inch or wider diameter. To that end, he says, MMSD always conducts an up-front survey of all potentially impacted trees; this includes assessing each tree’s health and financial projections of replacement. Shafer said that extensive and ongoing engagement with community members has been crucial to all of MMSD’s initiatives.


Building Tomorrow’s Greenways

Shafer acknowledges that, even in Greater Milwaukee, green infrastructure initiatives “are still in their infancy. Funding is always an issue, and major projects involve seeking support from multiple agencies from the local to [the] federal level.” One long-term MMSD project is supported by West Side advocates David Boucher and David Flowers, who meet weekly to push creation of a new “Greenway” within Milwaukee’s former 30th Street industrial corridor. They envision working with nonprofits and city and county government to link the Hank Aaron State Trail to Havenwoods State Forest on the northwest side. According to Boucher, “MMSD understood that their work mitigating storm water around Lincoln Creek could be more than a sewer public work project.” He believes that connecting the county’s Oak Leaf Trail to underserved communities, while creating safe public spaces, will increase access to parkland while spurring community development.”

Here’s What You Can Do

• Install a 55-gallon rain barrel to collect and store rainwater.

• Plant a rain garden. Shallow depressions within the soil planted with native flowers and grasses naturally collect and absorb rain and melting snow. Most rain gardens channel water from rooftop downspouts; they can also absorb water from hillsides, driveways and other impervious surfaces.

• Plant trees. Their root systems absorb rainwater in addition to providing many other benefits.

• Consider disconnecting downspouts—after checking with your municipality about how to do so legally and safely. During heavy rain, every residential downspout can send 12 gallons of water a minute to the sewer system, increasing the risk of basement backups and sewer overflows.

• Use porous pavers for driveways, walkways and parking lots. They allow water to seep into the soil instead of flowing into sewers.

• Encourage development of rooftop gardens on buildings or bioswales along city streets.

• Participate in events for the third annual national “Imagine a Day without Water” on Thursday, Oct. 12. (MMSD will be hosting a grand opening of its new Green Infrastructure Center.)


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