Green Stormwater Infrastructure Success in Milwaukee

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3rd in a series

Milwaukee’s contribution to Green Stormwater Infrastructure: 


The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) is using green stormwater infrastructure (GSI) to meet an ambitious goal to capture, absorb and store 740 Million Gallons of water EVERY TIME IT RAINS. The project is called Fresh Coast 740

The goal is to prevent flooding by slowing down the flow, prevent the damage caused by the force of water running off impervious surfaces and allow water to be reabsorbed onsite, remove pollutants, reduce water volume in the sanitary sewer system, and harvest rain to use where treated drinking water is not required (such as landscape irrigation). 

Here’s an interesting comparison–Seattle’s program is called the 700 Million Gallons project and the goal is to capture 700M gallons of polluted runoff per YEAR. The MMSD plans to do more than that with every single rain event. 

Manage Water Where It Falls

How will they do it? By managing water where it falls through the creation and use of green stormwater infrastructure. These GSI techniques will cover a variety of methods including bioswales, permeable pavement, green roofs, new trees, rain gardens, downspout disconnection and rainwater harvesting through the use of cisterns and rain barrels. 

While 740 million gallons may seem like a large number, it’s actually small considering the actual rainfall volume. The MMSD website tells us that “one inch of rain in their service area equals 7.1 billion gallons of water.” 

Implementation of successful GSI program’s throughout the district is imperative to hit that goal. In order to recognize and congratulate successful participants, MMSD has created the “Green Luminaries” award and is giving out awards monthy to recognize leadership and implementation of green stormwater infrastructure.

Here are six Green Luminary award winners covering a variety of sites around the Milwaukee area: 

Northwestern Mutual Insurance, Milwaukee, WI

Northwest Mutual, slope, Milwaukee1
Northwestern Mutual Tower and Commons. The Commons building shown here features a green roof and includes landscaping elements and permeable pavers. Milwaukee, WI.
Current Water. Green stormwater infrastructure at Northwestern Mutual Insurance in Milwaukee, WI.
Northwestern Mutual Insurance, Milwaukee, WI. Permeable pavers and green stormwater infrastructure landscaping elements.

The new Northwestern Mutual Insurance complex comprises a new tower and commons area. A green roof has been installed at The Commons covering 36,400 square feet which is the impressive equivalent of 7.7 Milwaukee Bucks basketball courts. The roof is covered in sedum and will retain stormwater runoff of 512,000 gallons per year. In addition to the green roof, the Northwestern Mutual site includes almost 3 acres of landscaped green space, and permeable paving stones.

Outpost Natural Foods, Mequon,WI

Outpost Natural Foods, Mequon, WI1

Outpost Natural Foods, Mequon, WI1 (1)

Outpost Natural Foods is “owned by the community for the community” and being good stewards to the land is a key component of the company mission. The owners included green infrastructure in the design for “zero runoff” and management of all rain onsite. Rain is harvested from the store’s white roof and captured in two 4,000 gallon cisterns which is later used for irrigation. The entire site is sloped at a slight pitch towards the rain gardens to capture 20,000 gallons of runoff through a wide variety of plants. The rain gardens filter pollutants (oils, gas, chemicals, debris) from the water and slow the flow before runoff reaches the water table or local waterway. The asphalt pavement also does its part–20% of the parking area is porous to allow the runoff to slowly drain into the ground beneath, meeting one requirement for “slowing the flow.”

Urban Ecology, Riverside Park, Milwaukee, WI

Current Water. Green Stormwater Infrastructure. Urban Ecology, Milwaukee, WI.
Urban Ecology headquarters in Riverside Park, Milwaukee, WI. Captures and reuses all rainwater onsite.
Current Water. Green Stormwater Infrastructure. Urban Ecology, Milwaukee, WI
Disconnected downspouts capture roof water and redirect it into a pond on the property at Urban Ecology, Milwaukee, WI.

Urban Ecology operates three facilities in the greater Milwaukee area with a mission to “get kids and adults outside in the natural world.” EU’s headquarters at Riverside Park includes a green roof, rain cubes, disconnected down spouts, rain barrels and gardens to keep every drop of water onsite. Over 1M gallons annually have been captured at just the Riverside branch alone. Even during the massive flooding in 2010, all water was kept onsite. It is the first facility in the state to develop a system to capture water for reuse in toilets.

Hartung Park, Wauwatosa, WI

Current Water. Green Infrastructure at Hartung Park.
Retention pond and maze at Hartung Park in Wauwatosa, WI.
Hartung Park was designed to honor it’s history as a pre-historic Tropical Sea while addressing current water management goals.

Hartung Park is a beautiful community park that was created on the site of a former quarry turned landfill in Wauwatosa, WI. After meetings with the local homeowners it was decided to create a park that not only honors the history of the site (pre-historic Tropical Sea) but includes green infrastructure as well. Extensive landscaping captures and filters runoff and a pond was created which will hold 5 Million gallons of runoff from 350 acres of neighboring private property. Without the pond all of the runoff would have gone directly into the Menomonee River.

Cream City Farms, Milwaukee, WI

Current Water. Green Stormwater Infrastructure.
Cream City Farms, Milwaukee, WI. Site of former brownfield.

This is not a pretty site, but it is a important one. Located in an industrial corridor, it is a remediated brownfield (contaminated site) which has been turned into a popular 14,500 sq ft urban farm. Bioswales were installed the length of the property which collect 40,000 gallons of water in an underground cistern the size of two school buses. Community support was great and 100 volunteers turned out and worked for two days to create this project. It is reported that 90% of the water that falls on the site flows through a vegetative buffer and into the bioswales. The bioswales filter the water to remove pollutants before it is pumped out using a solar-powered pump and used for irrigation. 

Mitchell Park Domes, Milwaukee, WI

Current Water. Green Stormwater Infrastructure.
Mitchell Park Domes and Fountains, Milwaukee, WI.
Current Water. Green Stormwater Infrastructure. Mitchell Field Domes, Milwaukee.
Plants at Mitchell Field Domes are irrigared with captured rainwater runoff.

The Mitchell Park Domes are saving money by using green stormwater infrastructure to reduce their draw of water from the municipal water system. A “sky harvester” was installed on top of their six greenhouses which currently supplies seven months of irrigation water. Four cisterns, holding 20K gallons each, hold that water supply.

The eighteen fountains at the entrance to the Mitchell Domes are fueled by water captured through the use of permeable pavers in the central plaza.  Additionally,  a green roof was installed as an educational piece atop the education center for the 25K children that visit the park each year. The roof contains a mix of a dozen different sedum species.

Is it any wonder that Milwaukee is known as the “Freshwater Capital of the World”?

It has the credentials–over 200 water technology companies are based here, 86% of its borders are on water, it has 1.2 quadrillion gallons of groundwater, and has the only School of Freshwater Sciences in the U.S.

Milwaukee has been home to a bevy of water-intensive industries for the past 100 years–brewing, meatpacking, tanning and transportation. During that time, it has developed world-class expertise in managing water–including the development of it’s Green Stormwater Infrastructure (GSI) program.

“Managing water where it falls” is a program that we can all adopt–whether it involves small changes to our homes or large construction overhauls. Milwaukee is working hard to lead the way and more communities are following suit.

Let’s join the movement.

By: Jennifer Croft

For more information:

More MMSD Case Studies, click here

Green Stormwater Infrastructure in Seattle

Green Infrastructure Basics

Milwaukee, Freshwater Capital of the World