Milwaukee, WI

Leading the Green Infrastructure Movement by Example

Rendering of the redeveloped Menomonee River Valley Industrial Site, which incorporates green space for recreation and stormwater management (Source: Wenk Associates)

Milwaukee faces a problem common to many older, established cities in the Midwest: a combined sewer system that commingles stormwater with sewage. The aging drainage network lacks the capacity to contain high flows during rainstorms, resulting in discharges of the polluted mix directly into Milwaukee's rivers and Lake Michigan. To comply with a number of wet weather regulations, including CSO and stormwater requirements, Milwaukee invested in both infrastructure solutions and a broad environmental sustainability initiative, Green Milwaukee, that includes stormwater management in addition to energy conservation, recycling, and urban renewal elements.

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The idea for Green Milwaukee originated in Mayor Tom Barrett's office in response to encouragement from environmental groups and local businesses to explore "green" options for the city. The Mayor formed the Milwaukee Green Team to turn the idea into a multi-faceted, environmental sustainability program that addresses stormwater management as well as energy conservation and economic revitalization. This committee, consisting of agency representatives, citizens, academics, environmental groups, and other stakeholders, developed a report that included a recommendation for the creation of the Milwaukee Office of Environmental Sustainability within the Mayor's office. The Office of Environmental Sustainability was initially composed of City staff. The initiative expanded as partners came on board, including professionals from the architecture and engineering communities, the Wisconsin Green Building Alliance, environmental groups, and green technology firms. This department is now led by Director Ann Beier who plays a key role in the Green Milwaukee Initiative. No outside funding-financial support came from the City's general fund (the original intention was to fund the Green Milwaukee Initiative using grants and cost-savings resulting from the project elements).

Program Activities

View of the high flow storage area from above the playground and tennis courts during a rainstorm (Source: Environmental Services in Action)

The City committed to reducing runoff from public properties by 15 percent using a combination of green infrastructure, native plantings, and low-tech devices, such as flow restrictors to slow runoff from rooftops. Green roof projects in the area include and installation on one of the City Hall Complex buildings, and projects at the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) building, the Great Lakes Water Institute, and a Housing Authority project called Highland Gardens (described below). The City is also encouraging porous pavement projects. Several installations are already in place, including a new subdivision, a parking lot at MMSD that is monitored for performance, and another parking lot with half traditional pavement and half porous pavement (to allow direct comparisons through monitoring). Monitoring efforts will help to address concerns about the effects of snow, ice, and salt on porous pavement.

Green roof at the Great Lakes Water Institute (Source: Milwaukee Office of Environmental Sustainability)

The City's efforts are in line with the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System. The City's Facilities staff have been using LEED standards successfully for some time, and it is fast becoming the industry standard. Milwaukee is considering requiring LEED certification for all development projects that use City money. At this time, the use of green infrastructure is voluntary, and the City does not have specific plans to implement policy changes to require it.

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Milwaukee recently implemented a stormwater fee based on percent impervious surface. Homeowners pay a flat fee, and commercial owners pay a fee that is based on the actual percent of on-site impervious surface. There was little opposition to the fee before it was passed because due to lack of advertisement. Some objections were raised, however, after the fee began appearing on utility bills. Objections to the fee stemmed from the fact that it applies to all properties, including public properties and non-profit organizations that do not usually pay taxes. The City unofficially offers an incentive to ratepayers who implement stormwater management on their property. The owner can challenge the fee if they can show that they have implemented one or more mitigating BMPs. Beier has found the stormwater fee to be an excellent educational tool because people are now realizing that managing stormwater has a cost.

Exemplary Projects

The following projects highlight the type of green infrastructure projects implemented through the efforts of the Office of Environmental Sustainability:

Green spaces abound at the Menomonee River Valley Industrial Site in Milwaukee, WI (Source: Milwaukee Office of Environmental Sustainability)

Menomonee River Valley Industrial Site

This is the largest green infrastructure project in the Milwaukee area and is a key example of the sustainable redevelopment of an underutilized, contaminated industrial site. Green features include a 70-acre stormwater park with recreational trails that is expected to treat 100 percent of runoff from adjacent industrial and commercial areas. The Menomonee Valley Partnership, a public-private partnership that represents a diverse set of stakeholders, developed a set of Sustainable Design Guidelines for the Menomonee River Valley that include guidance on site design, building design and energy use, materials and resources, construction and demolition, indoor environmental quality, and operation and maintenance.

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The Highland Gardens Public Housing Facility uses a green roof, rain gardens in the courtyard, and a cistern to manage stormwater (Source: Milwaukee Office of Environmental Sustainability)

Highland Gardens and Highland Homes

Two projects in Highland Park are aimed at neighborhood revitalization and economic development: Highland Gardens Public Housing Facility and Highland Homes. Highland Gardens features a 20,000-square-foot modular tray green roof, a cistern, and rain gardens to handle stormwater from the residential complex. The modular roof is different from most green roof designs because it allows for easier repair or replacement of individual pieces. The buildings have energy efficient features and builders used recycled materials in its construction. The Highland Homes development also has energy efficient features, as well as rain gardens and disconnected impervious surfaces.

Milwaukee River Flushing Station/Alterra Coffee Roasters

MMSD and Alterra Coffee Roasters partnered to convert the Milwaukee River Flushing Station into a cafe and interpretive center to promote awareness of conservation and wastewater technology. The flushing station was originally designed to pump 500 million gallons of water per day from Lake Michigan into the Milwaukee River to rid the lower portion of the river of pollution. The redesigned site now captures 100 percent of its stormwater on-site through a recycled granite porous pavement parking lot, a rain garden, and a grit separator. Captured runoff is reused to irrigate landscaping.

Stormwater is managed entirely on-site at the former Milwaukee River Flushing Station, now an Alterra Coffee Roasters café and interpretive center (Source: Milwaukee Office of Environmental Sustainability)

Targeting the Approach

The Office of Environmental Sustainability continues to evaluate program activities to ensure that they are implementing the right stormwater controls. Beier emphasizes the importance of a targeted approach that addresses the particular wet weather problems that the community faces. In Milwaukee, they identified combined sewer overflows (resulting from too much water at one time for the drainage system to handle) as the most pressing water-related problem. The Office concluded that increased water storage was essential to solving the combined sewer issue. The Deep Tunnel project, a 31.2 kilometer inline stormwater storage system that has reduced the occurrence of overflows from more than 50 per year to approximately 2.5 per year, is a major part of the water storage solution. The remainder of the problem is being addressed by promoting stormwater retention and infiltration practices, such as rain barrels, green roofs, rain gardens, porous pavement, and other low-impact development techniques.

Advice to Other Communities

Beier recommends identifying the most pressing problem that needs to be addressed as the first step, whether it is water quality, water flow, or water quantity. Once the major concerns are identified, all future activities should be tailored to address these issues.

Beier also recommends putting demonstration projects in high-visibility areas to maximize the effect of each investment and reach the broadest audience.

Public education is another important element of any initiative. Educational materials should clearly state how each action or activity contributes to the solution and identify specific outcomes expected for each behavior change. This gives citizens and officials an understanding of how they can support the initiatives and shows that they can make a measurable difference.

Milwaukee's downspout disconnection program, suffered from a lack of public education. So far, it has not been embraced by homeowners because they do not relate their small contribution to the larger problem of sewer overflows. Beier acknowledges a need for education to help improve the public's understanding of the causes of and solutions to the problem. The City relies on MMSD to assist with public education, particularly on technical matters, and considers their partnership with the wastewater authority to be an essential element of the initiative's success.

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