Why Milwaukee Needs A Comprehensive Water Management Plan

May 10, 2019

Some people are concerned about the many lead pipes that deliver water into older Milwaukee homes. Others applaud the city for tackling stormwater management through green infrastructure. But how is Milwaukee doing at creating a comprehensive water management plan?

When it comes to water, Jenny Kehl has an unabashedly candid view on the importance of planning for today and the future. Kehl is a global water security scholar for UW-Milwaukee and associate professor at its School of Freshwater Sciences.

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“I anticipate everyone wants the future generations of Wisconsin to be able to survive. There are some pretty serious challenges that we're facing. I think everyone wants us to address uncertainties and vulnerabilities," she says.

Kehl says looking at water as a whole within a watershed is complex. Let’s take Milwaukee: You have to think about things like how water is treated before you drink it and then after you use it. Then there’s the contaminants making their way into the rivers and streams, ending up in Lake Michigan. Oh, and what about the challenge of the health of its water?

She says Stockholm, Sweden, stands out as a city that's created a comprehensive water plan. She says Stockholm treats its water as one big system.

“Usually we look at the front end of drinking water – where is the water coming from. As opposed to the back end — where is the wastewater going and how do we treat it before it goes into the system and then again turns into drinking water later,” Kehl says. “But they’ve done a really good job of integrating all of those contributing factors."

In the U.S., she says New York City and Philadelphia are becoming water management models. Kehl calls Philadelphia’s stormwater management system one of the most forward-thinking in the country.

"They can capture more than the first inch of stormwater. Milwaukee aspires to capture only the first half an inch," she says.

Kehl says Milwaukee has plenty to boast about, including expertise in water science and technology. "But I think that it’s too parochial to say we can’t learn from other amazing cities in the nation and worldwide that are doing good work,” she says.

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Erick Shambarger has a different perspective. He's sustainability director of Milwaukee’s Environmental Collaboration Office. Shambarger believes Milwaukee is a model for other communities.

“I’m not just saying that to be the hometown team. I go to the urban sustainability directors conferences nationally, and for years I’ve been saying, 'Why aren’t we talking about water?’ I think the cities around the Great Lakes have an interest in it. But I do really think that Milwaukee has a lot to be proud of and we are charting a path forward on water issues,” he says.

Shambarger says UWM’s School of Freshwater Sciences helped develop water principles that are imbedded in the city’s official sustainability plan. He says the city continues to roll out programs that lay the foundation for a comprehensive water plan.

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“We have green infrastructure plan requiring not only private development but incorporating it into our streets. We’ve cleaned up Bradford Beach to an amazing degree in the last number of years. We’re bringing people to the water again, and with Harbor District redevelopment bring people down to the water again so they can kayak and do those kinds of recreational things,” Shambarger says. “There's obviously opportunities to do more and we’re gonna just keep pushing it.”

READ: Milwaukee's Harbor District Building Its First Park

Both Shambarger and Kehl agree everyone needs to come to the table to implement a living plan designed for today and the future. And Kehl says Milwaukee isn’t the only place that needs a water plan. She believes people have to start planning locally, regionally and beyond.

“We need to have a statewide policy in place. I also think we need a national water policy,” Kehl says. “Just like we need a national energy policy.”

Kehl says we must think and plan for our own generations and the ones to come.