Ready to Capture the Rain

Milwaukee triples down on green infrastructure and engages residents in improvements.

Ready to Capture the Rain

This rooftop garden atop a parking structure in downtown Milwaukee is a good example of the Metropolitan Sewerage District’s green infrastructure initiative, part of a larger long-range vision for integrated watershed management. (Photo by Michael McLoone)

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Several years ago, Kevin Shafer, executive director of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, laid out an ambitious vision for the utility.

The 2035 vision pushes for integrated watershed management and includes goals such as zero overflows and the capture of the first 1/2 inch of rainfall across the service area, which is about 740 million gallons of stormwater every time it rains.

To help achieve these sustainability goals, MMSD created a regional green infrastructure plan with a triple bottom-line approach:

• Environmental – Improve water quality, attract pollinators

• Social – Community engagement, increase green space

• Economic – Job opportunities, increase property value

While that plan includes many components, it contains a particular group of programs that ensures everyone in the district can participate.

One of those programs is the Green Infrastructure Partnership Program, targeted at residential, industrial and commercial projects. Another program, Green Solutions, is set up expressly for the municipalities the district serves.

Industrial and commercial

The industrial and commercial part of the GIPP — accounting for 9.1 million gallons of green infrastructure capture capacity to date — is structured to help property owners and developers offset the costs of incorporating substantial green infrastructure into their projects. The district contributes 50% of the total cost, and the property owner covers the other half.

Breanne Plier, manager of the Planning, Research and Sustainability Division for MMSD, says that GIPP was meant to help incentivize folks to think outside of the box and start using green infrastructure when it was a far more expensive option, but it remains in place today. Green infrastructure can offer some of those triple bottom-line benefits like better aesthetics, more habitat- and water-filtering capabilities, and increased property value.

The district requires a conservation easement for each GIPP project to ensure it has access to green infrastructure on the property to confirm the structure is being maintained (property owners commit to maintaining the infrastructure for a certain number of years) and to bring people to the site for tours.

The program has been popular, and Plier says they have found LinkedIn effective in promoting this program to professionals looking for these types of opportunities. The most effective method of promotion, however, has been word-of-mouth.

“Once you get one or two land developers and owners in on it, or designers and engineering firms, they see the benefits that come out of a project and word spreads,” Plier says.

GIPP project owners also sign on, as part of the agreement, to promote the green infrastructure work they are doing. That helps generate excitement, and the project partners have been eager to do that.

Public green infrastructure

The Green Solutions program (accounting for 4 million gallons of green infrastructure capture capacity to date) is directed at the municipalities MMSD serves. While some municipal projects meet the requirements under the public-private program above, GIPP funding is extremely competitive, and many municipalities tend to not want to compete with private property owners. Instead, they prefer Green Solutions.

The district funds this program through the rates the municipalities pay to MMSD. Essentially, they are getting back a percentage of the money they pay MMSD, which in turn can be used to help pay for green infrastructure enhancements to capital improvement projects. The amount of money they receive is based on the size of the municipality.

These are projects such as converting raised beds to bioswales when improving roadways, or installing impervious pavers in alleyways. The municipalities drive their projects but are required to submit a work plan to MMSD, which then either approves the plan or guides them to a better option.

The Green Solutions program provides a set dollar amount that municipalities can count on and plan for when putting their budgets together. The program also has some flexibility and allows the municipalities to roll over their funds to accumulate a larger pot of funding for more significant projects.

The district works closely with member municipalities’ public works departments because, as Plier explains, “It takes a lot of successful projects to build confidence and one bad one to break it. Therefore, it’s important to ensure projects are designed and implemented well.”

The district has formed a tech advisory panel that meets once a month. It is there that the municipalities can discuss issues and problems they are experiencing in their community and inform MMSD of any capital projects they have planned. MMSD can share its plans as well. Besides that continual information loop, MMSD offers workshops to municipal employees to demonstrate the latest and greatest techniques.

“We do get a fair amount of excitement around these programs because it not only helps MMSD achieve our goals and our mission, but it’s also helping them take care of some of their permit requirements as well.”

All of these communities are under permit for stormwater with the state of Wisconsin. In addition to reducing the amount of pollution entering waterways, they must also educate residents on stormwater and what individuals can do to manage water where it falls. While MMSD does assist with public education, municipalities can use their Green Solutions funds to meet their permit requirements for public education.

Municipalities can easily see the return on investment in green infrastructure projects in the form of reduced sewer rates due to millions of gallons of water being diverted from the sewer system, but engaging individual residents is far more nuanced.

That piece of the puzzle brings up Plier’s favorite part of GIPP: the community program.

Community green infrastructure

There are two key ingredients to the community program: rain barrels (accounting for 52,000 gallons of rain capture to date) and rain gardens. The barrels are free to any resident who wants them. District interns will help residents decide which downspout to put it on, show them how to use the barrels and winterize them.

For residents who want to install a rain garden on their property, MMSD holds workshops where they can learn how to maintain their garden, how to identify plants and care for them and receive design and placement advice from master gardeners. They can even purchase select native plants at 50% off retail from local nurseries.

“It’s a lot of work and investment, but it is worth every penny,” Plier says.

It’s worthwhile in part because every one of those projects adds up in the capture of stormwater, but more important, MMSD is forming relationships with the communities it serves.

One of those communities is the Century City Triangle neighborhood in Milwaukee. Resident and coordinator of the Century City Triangle Neighborhood Association, Yvonne McCaskill, has lived in that area for 47 years. When she first moved there, it was a booming middle-class industrial neighborhood. But when manufacturing plants shut down, McCaskill watched as many of her neighbors left the area.

A turning point came in 2004. McCaskill said it was as if she woke up, looked around and realized she lived in a very different community than the one a half-century before — things had deteriorated. McCaskill had just retired as an educator and considered selling her house and moving on, but instead, she set about to organize the community.

Admittedly, stormwater management was not on her radar back then. However, in 2010 Milwaukee experienced a 100-year flood, and the neighborhood was rife with basement backups. In her words, it was awful. The experience led McCaskill and others in her community and surrounding area to start asking questions as to why this was happening.

Fortunately, it was around that time when MMSD started its community outreach campaign. The district began by holding a series of information sessions within several communities that were hit particularly hard by the flooding. McCaskill attended several of those sessions and found the information was a bit too technical for the average person. She figured if she was having difficulty following the conversation, the information needed to be brought down a level.

As an educator, McCaskill understood the importance of adapting your message to your audience.

Her advice to MMSD was that instead of asking residents to come to the informational meetings, MMSD should attend the neighborhood meetings, which were already being held monthly — essentially, bringing its message to the people rather than having people come to the message. She also recommended using visuals to demonstrate how stormwater works, what happens when the rain falls and how individual residents can change their behaviors to avoid some of the basement backups.

“[MMSD] was very willing to listen to the feedback and follow that feedback,” McCaskill says. “My whole thing is if you’re talking about true community resident engagement, then you need to listen to the resident.”

McCaskill and her neighbors also helped MMSD get more interest in the rain garden program, which was not particularly popular within her community. Residents felt that the native plants being used made the gardens look like weed pits.

“If you go to the east side of the river, you’ll see many yards with those kinds of native plants, but not here. We like flowers.” MMSD once again listened to the feedback, and blooming plants like black-eyed Susans, purple coneflowers and other colorful plants were added to the existing gardens and were made available going forward. It was a simple fix, but one that made a big difference.

“Once people saw a blooming rain garden and what it could look like, then you’re talking about buy-in,” McCaskill says.

Both McCaskill and Plier agree that the most significant change that resulted from the outreach was residents becoming better educated about the impact stormwater has on their community and how they can manage it.

McCaskill has come to believe the partnerships between a utility and its communities are essential, and she says utilities cannot stand alone if they want to be successful.

“I’m impressed with MMSD. When I look at some of the other cities that partner with residents and nonprofits on their behalf, I think MMSD is above the curve. They’re a very community-conscious utility. They make the efforts not just here in the Triangle, but in other communities as well.”

Since 2002, MMSD has helped to fund approximately 34.2 million gallons of capture in green infrastructure across all programs.

Work continues

But that doesn’t mean McCaskill thinks the work is finished. She says she lives in an underserved community that requires all hands on deck to bring it back to where she knows it can be. She says MMSD’s work is a good start, but it’s just one strategy to improve the quality of life for residents. For McCaskill, the bigger picture is community, economic and workforce development.

“All of these things are involved in this whole conversation. It’s not just about rain barrels, rain gardens and art in the park. Those are all components and strategies to get to the broader work. Those three things — community development, economic development and workforce development — are where this all leads. That’s my vision. That’s why I am involved,” she says.

Plier understands the bigger picture McCaskill is talking about.

“I’ve been here 12 to 13 years now,” Plier says. “I’ve always noticed we serve a diverse population; we serve the city of Milwaukee and suburban districts. We are trying to connect with all neighborhoods that we service. We are trying hard to make sure the voices are heard in the projects and programs we do.”

For example, MMSD’s project manager on the north side of Milwaukee is earnest about working with community groups and making sure those living there have a voice in large projects being planned for their neighborhood. Traditionally they did not have much say.

“Social equity is something we take very seriously, and we are trying to improve,” Plier says. “That will start flavoring our projects more, even through engineering.” 


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