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When It Comes To Flooding, Can Milwaukee Cope?

Susan Bence
The Kinnickinnic is one of three rivers in Milwaukee's watershed that feeds into Lake Michigan. Soon, a section will be naturalized as part of a larger project.

Parts of Wisconsin recently experienced torrential rains. Roads flooded — or in some cases, washed out — in Dane and Iowa counties. Some state trails have closed until further notice. So, where does Milwaukee stand in its ability to cope with massive rain storms?

WUWM Enviornmental Reporter Susan Bence met with Patrick Elliott of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) near the Kinnickinnic River in Pulaski Park on the city’s south side to help find out.

Green Infrastructure

The Kinnickinnic is one of three rivers within Milwaukee’s massive watershed that feed into Lake Michigan. The Kinnickinnic is also the most densely developed according to Elliott.

“We needed more space for those flood flows to pass through rather than have those flood flows rise up and pour into the neighborhood,” he says.

In the 1960s, Milwaukee joined many cities in what was considered cutting edge stormwater management technology: lining rivers with concrete. Turns out, the measure reduced control, rather than improving it.

Credit Susan Bence
Patrick Elliott with MMSD stands near the Kinnickinnic River, which will soon be naturalized.

“The concrete lining was designed to move water, and it’s really impressive when it’s flying through here because it’s a raging river,” Elliott notes. “The unfortunate part is that it gets slippery and if you slip and fall in there’s little hope that you’ll get out.”

There’s also no chance for excess water to be absorbed into the ground.

“We’re working between 16th [Street] and all the way down to the south end of the park. We’re going to be removing …. concrete lining and then replacing that with rocks and vegetation … at the side and having that blend into the park area,” Elliott explains. 

And that’s just the beginning. Crews will even relocate the existing playground and basketball court to allow the natural floodplain to do what mother nature intended: absorb water when the river swells.

This work is not new to MMSD. Over the years, it has removed homes and naturalized flood-prone areas throughout the region.

Elliott says green infrastructure also factors into MMSD’s flood management strategy. So far, the agency has permanently conserved more than 3,500 acres in Milwaukee, as well as Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington counties. This is in part due to efforts such as Greenseams, a MMSD flood management program.

Greenseams is really looking at the future and making sure those properties that are really critical to absorbing water and storing water in these upstream …. areas, making sure that that doesn’t get developed and create additional flooding concerns downstream sections of the watershed,” he ads.

MMSD is always improving its ability to handle flood waters, Elliott says, and he believes MMSD’s flood prevention efforts are paying off. Milwaukee is better equipped to reduce the risk of flooding.

"We’re seeing more frequent flood events and they’re stronger and more intense." - Patrick Elliott.

“It is a challenge. We’re seeing more frequent flood events and they’re stronger and more intense, but we’re completing projects like these and it’s only going to make us more resilient to handle those flood waters," says Elliott.

But Milwaukee’s Environmental Sustainability Director Erick Shambarger can’t promise the city will be able to prevent flooding. His team is tasked with coming up with strategies to make Milwaukee more resilient.

“If 10 inches [of rain] fall in Milwaukee in 24-hours like in Madison, we’re going to be in trouble no matter what … but for a lot of the bigger storms that will come this will certainly help reduce the risk of basement backups and flooding, and when it’s not raining create a much better, calmer urban environment,” says Shambarger.

Fondy Park, next to Fondy Market on the city’s north side was, until recently, a blighted city lot. It now collects 71,000 gallons of stormwater and is one of six city stormwater management projects in a six-block area. But these aren’t isolated projects.

Credit Susan Bence
Fondy Park is one of six city stormwater management projects in a six-block area.

Milwaukee’s Department of Public Works started incorporating green infrastructure in 2008. Five years later, Shambarger notes the program was formalized, which means when streets are due for reconstruction, the department evaluates it for green infrastructure.

That’s led to more than 270 projects – large and small – designed to soak up and slow down stormwater around the city.

Shambarger said next month the common council will take up a proposed ordinance meant to “inspire” more businesses to take up the green infrastructure mantel.

“Under current law when properties disturb more than an acre of land, they have to do a stormwater management,” he explains. “We’re looking at changes so that when they do that plan, we want them to capture the first half inch of rain on the site through green infrastructure.”

Fondy Park captures at least an inch of rain.

Credit Timothy McCollow
The lot that Fondy Park now resides on was undeveloped.

Cheryl Nenn with Milwaukee Riverkeeper says other cities like Philadelphia and Chicago are stepping up, so why not raise the bar for all of Milwaukee?

“In the Milwaukee area, I think, there’s hesitancy to go too far on the regulation front because you could be scaring businesses away to the suburbs," she says. “But I think that we could push it a little further as far as requiring more green infrastructure certainly for new development and redevelopment where possible.”

Nenn believes Milwaukee needs to both aggressively ramp up green infrastructure and tend to failing infrastructure underground.

“I mean clean rain water that’s getting through cracked pipes, foundation drains, cracked and not well-sealed manhole covers. That’s a problem in that it fills up capacity of the sanitary sewers, and when you have these really intense storms, contributes to overflows,” she notes.

That can result in water quality and public health issues.

Hit Hard

UW-Madison researcher Daniel Wright studies hydroclimate extremes. He doesn’t sugar coat the likelihood that Milwaukee will be hit by future flood-caliber rainstorms.

“If you look at Milwaukee compared to the areas north, south and west of the city, there’s a much stronger propensity of heavy storms right over the city than there is in the surrounding areas,” says Wright.

He also notes that Milwaukee has an "urban heat island effect," which is when urban areas are much warmer than nearby rural areas. Cities have more pavement, which can absorb and retain heat, compared to rural areas.

Daniel Wright says, "Every little bit helps, but it’s still an open question when you talk about a really big storm ... ."

“It appears that in the Milwaukee area there’s an interesting interaction between the urban heat island effect and the lake right there that’s causing storms to form over Milwaukee. And then those storms actually pull up evaporated water from the nearby lake surface. And so basically, the lake is helping to feed these storms as they develop,” Wright explains.

He also adds that the time of year floods historically occurred is shifting. Fifty years ago, floods would tend to happen in the spring.

“Now it’s the big summertime short-lived thunderstorms that are popping up over the city more than surrounding areas,” says Wright. “So basically, not only are the floods getting worse as we develop our urban areas more, but also the time of year in which they happen is changing.”

So, is Milwaukee in a better position to handle potential flooding?

“Certainly, river restoration projects can make a big difference, particularly if you can move houses and other buildings out of that floodplain that can be really valuable," says Wright. "Every little bit helps, but it’s still an open question when you talk about a really big storm – what kind of difference you can make."

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Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.<br/>