Milwaukee residents attend a fair at Alice’s Garden to learn about ways to capture and reuse rain water to help curb flooding, maintain the community garden, and reduce runoff into Lake Michigan. PHOTO / Todd Ambs

Upcoming events in Toledo, Detroit, and Gary, Ind., to highlight local water infrastructure challenges, solutions—and need for ongoing federal investment

The Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition is partnering with local communities around the Great Lakes region to promote federal investments in water infrastructure to protect the health of communities and the Great Lakes themselves. On August 27, the Coalition collaborated with more than two dozen local community groups, environmental organizations, city partners, and regional agencies to promote the adoption of low- and no-cost rainwater reuse methods to Milwaukee’s urban neighborhoods to help city residents reduce localized flooding as well as stormwater pollution in Lake Michigan.

The event in Milwaukee, a community fair sponsored by Milwaukee Water Commons and the Coalition, offered advice, installation tips, and funding information to Milwaukee families who are eager to redirect rainwater from rooftops, yards and parking areas to rain barrels, rain gardens and cisterns where that “free water” can be reused sustainably. And every gallon helps.

Todd Ambs, campaign director for the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition, discusses the importance of federal investments in water infrastructure to promote healthy communities and healthy Great Lakes. PHOTO / Carla Walker

Storm Runoff Challenges

Whenever an inch of heavy rain falls on Milwaukee-area neighborhoods, nearly 6 billion gallons of rainwater — teeming with trash, dog poop and lawn fertilizers — finds its way into Lake Michigan.

That dirty stormwater continues to be one of the biggest threats to the health of five Milwaukee rivers and Lake Michigan — and to the quality of life in the city’s neighborhoods.

Before making its way to Lake Michigan, heavy rainwater often swamps streets and sidewalks throughout Milwaukee. Neighborhood residents also may experience the expensive frustration of discovering that rainwater has seeped into their basements, damaging furnaces and furniture. And likely nourishing the growth of harmful mold inside their homes.

Stormwater runoff and the associated problems are wide-spread. It will take 20 years and tens of billions of dollars, according to the U.S. EPA, to modernize the region’s aging stormwater, wastewater and drinking water infrastructure, which will also deter torrents of polluted stormwater from entering the Great Lakes.

Community groups promote low-cost ways to reuse water to prevent neighborhood flooding and stormwater runoff into Lake Michigan. PHOTO / Carla Walker

A top priority of the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition is to work with members of Congress to ensure federal funding for local communities defray much of these costs.
“The country faces a water infrastructure crisis that demands the federal government step up to the plate and help local communities,” says Todd Ambs, campaign director for the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition. “We have solutions that can put an end to flooded basements and closed beaches. It’s time to use them and invest in them. Delay will only make the problems worse and more costly to solve.”

Milwaukee Community Embracing Solutions

In Milwaukee, communities are embracing solutions in which every homeowner has an important role to play—from installing a rain barrel to planting a rain garden, these efforts absorb rainwater before it overwhelms infrastructure. Once captured, rainwater can also reap benefits for neighbors.

“Rain barrels and rain gardens are just two of the ways residents can prevent basement and street flooding while beautifying their neighborhood,” says Nicole Carver, co-chair of the Milwaukee Water Commons’ green infrastructure initiative, who spoke at the August event. “Milwaukee homeowners can save money on their water bills by collecting and reusing rainwater for their flower and vegetable gardens.”

Venus Williams with Alice’s Garden Urban Farm, left, speaks after receiving the Green Luminaries Award from Karen Nenahlo, right, from the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewage District. PHOTO / Todd Ambs

Case in point: A rain reuse project at Alice’s Garden—a local hub of 100 community gardens for the melting pot of people from different cultures, faiths, and classes in the neighborhood. The project, three years in the making, is installing a sophisticated rainwater reuse system, including a cistern to hold excess rainwater and bioswale to slow rainwater runoff. The rainwater reuse system at Alice’s Garden will capture about 24,000 gallons of rainwater that can be used (thanks to a solar pump) to water the gardens.
At the Milwaukee event, the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewage District presented its Green Luminary Award to Alice’s Garden for the innovate work to help curb stormwater runoff and helping the community.

Another Milwaukee initiative has resulted in the installation of more than 360 rain barrels and 40 rain gardens at no cost to residents thanks to support from the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewage District and Clean Wisconsin. Those nature-based solutions capture more than 27,000 gallons of rain with every big rainstorm—water that can now be used to nourish the neighborhood’s native flower beds and vegetable gardens.

Map of Milwaukee community shows the site of Alice’s Garden rainwater harvesting project. PHOTO / Carla Walker

The project is just one of many around the region that showcases how neighborhoods are taking action.

“Local, nature-based infrastructure projects in Milwaukee and across the region are empowering communities, bringing people together, and putting forward sustainable solutions that are good for the environment, for local neighborhoods, and the Great Lakes,” said Ambs. “These efforts need to go hand-in-hand with federal investments that ensure every person in this country has access to safe, reliable, updated drinking water and wastewater infrastructure that promotes healthy lakes, and healthy lives.”

The Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition will be hosting events in Toledo (September 29), Detroit (October 6), and Gary, Ind., (November 8-9) to highlight local water infrastructure issues and solutions.

Learn more about the September 29 Toledo event and register to attend here.