Affordable rainwater reuse methods help prevent Lake Michigan pollution
by Nicole Carver and Todd Ambs
Milwaukee residents, Lake Michigan needs your love, especially when the storm clouds roll in.
Nearly 6 billion gallons of rainwater — teeming with trash, dog poop and lawn fertilizers — finds its way into our Lake Michigan whenever an inch of heavy rain falls on Milwaukee-area neighborhoods.
That dirty storm water continues to be one of the biggest threats to the health of our five local rivers and Lake Michigan. And to the quality of life in our neighborhoods.
Before making its way to our Great Lake, heavy rainwater often swamps streets and sidewalks throughout Milwaukee. On the north side, we see this in neighborhoods adjacent to Lincoln Creek and near the 30th Street Industrial Corridor. The intersection of 31st and Capitol is notorious for flooding. On the south side, street flooding often occurs near the corner of S. 43rd Street and Lincoln Avenue.
Neighborhood residents also may experience the frustration of discovering that rainwater has seeped into their basements, damaging furnaces, furniture and cherished mementos. And likely nourishing the growth of harmful mold inside their homes.
The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) does a great job of collecting and treating about 1.1 billion gallons of storm water before it’s ever discharged into our waterways. But what about the billions of gallons of untreated storm water that flow right to the lake after that big downpour?
Milwaukee households, neighborhoods and businesses are capturing some of it. They are redirecting 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.
Rainwater capture and reuse programs like these are being embraced by communities throughout the Great Lakes region. And for good reason: It will take 20 years and tens of billions of dollars to modernize the region’s aging storm water, wastewater and drinking water infrastructure, and deter torrents of polluted storm water from reaching Lake Michigan. It’s important that Wisconsin’s congressional delegation work together to ensure federal monies help local communities defray much of these costs.
Over the past four years, MMSD and Clean Wisconsin have installed more than 360 rain barrels and 40 rain gardens, primarily around the 30th Street Industrial Corridor, at no cost to residents. That effort, part of the Fresh Coast 740 campaign, is expected to capture more than 27,000 gallons of rain with every big rainstorm to water the neighborhood’s native flower beds and vegetable gardens.
One of Milwaukee’s oldest and most established community gardens, Alice’s Garden, is installing a sophisticated rainwater reuse system, including a cistern and a rain garden on steroids called a bioswale. The nearly 100 garden plots are tended to by a melting pot of people of different cultures, faiths and classes who all share a love of gardening here in the city.
More than three years in the making, the rainwater reuse system at Alice’s Garden will capture about 24,000 gallons of rainwater, much of it from the asphalt playground at the neighboring Brown Street Academy.
The project, largely funded by a joint grant from MMSD and the Fund for Lake Michigan, will be completed next year. A solar pump will move rainwater stored underground to garden hoses to sustainably irrigate Alice’s Garden.
Currently, more than two dozen local community groups, environmental organizations, and city and regional agencies are promoting rainwater reuse in the city. Beginning August 27, the Milwaukee Water Commons’ Think Blue | Think Green Rainwater Reuse Fairs will bring together many of these groups to offer advice, installation and funding information to Milwaukee neighborhoods and residents — all keen on giving Lake Michigan some love.
Nicole Carver is co-chair of Think Blue | Think Green, a project of the Green Infrastructure Initiative of the Milwaukee Water Commons. Todd Ambs is campaign director for the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition.