Milwaukee, Wisconsin: Making Big Plans for Green Infrastructure


Chicago architect Daniel Burnham famously said, "Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work."   The folks at the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) are taking Burnham's advice when it comes to comprehensive deployment of green infrastructure strategies to better manage stormwater.

Today, NRDC released an update to our 2011 report Rooftops to Rivers II, which shows how, in just two short years, cities and regions of all sizes are using green infrastructure to manage their stormwater and revitalize their communities.

MMSD's efforts are worthy of special note: with approval of its Regional Green Infrastructure Plan, MMSD becomes the second city or region to achieve all six of NRDC’s Emerald City criteria identified in Rooftops to Rivers II. The plan identifies a goal of capturing 740 million gallons of stormwater per rain event and lays out a systematic approach to achieve that goal. MMSD underwent a detailed data analysis to identify the opportunities and constraints to implement green infrastructure strategies in seven watersheds in its service area; the process included the collection, creation, and analysis of data such as impervious area, soils, land use, property ownership, groundwater, topography, tree canopy, and separate/combined sewer areas.

MMSD's Regional Green Infrastructure Plan identifies the storage capacity of each type of green infrastructure identified.  Image courtesy of Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District.

Unfortunately, the innovation and progress we're seeing in Milwaukee (and 19 other cities profiled in Rooftops to Rivers II) is not being matched by our federal leaders, specifically EPA. EPA has missed multiple deadines to propose new rules to curb stormwater runoff that would incorporate the learnings from places like Milwaukee.  EPA certainly recognizes the value of green infrastructure, which helps stop runoff pollution by capturing rainwater and either storing it for use or letting it filter back into the ground, replenishing vegetation and groundwater supplies.  In fact, EPA just released a series of case studies analyzing the economic benefits of green infrastructure strategies, which includes MMSD.

And, while EPA's inaction on stormwater doesn't stop innovative leaders llike those at MMSD from moving forward, it does make a whole lot harder for other cities and municipalities to fully integrate green infrastructure strategies.  Consider two of the projects MMSD has underway to not only implement its Regional Green Infrastructure Plan, but better protect communities from flooding and improve habitat at the same time:

  • Menomonee River Concrete Removal—MMSD is leveraging internal funding with resources from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative to remove 1,100 feet of concrete from the bed of the Menomonee River that had been installed as part of a previous flood control plan. The project, which began in the summer of 2013, will restore a more natural, meandering streambed and eliminate a barrier to fish passage.
  • Kinnickinnic River Channel Restoration—Begun in 2011, this project will restore a portion of the Kinnickinnic River channel and floodplain by removing 500 feet of concrete channel lining and restoring habitat along 1,000 feet of the river channel and associated floodplain.

MMSD is one of leaders on green infrastructure deployment, but they're not alone, as Rooftops to Rivers II and today's update demonstrates.  We need that same leadership from EPA, which is why NRDC continues to work with citizens and organizations across the country to demand that EPA issue new standards that will allow everyone in America to enjoy the benefits of green infrastructure and clean water.