Bacteria Water

Urban Milwaukee: How 18 Municipalities Collaborate on Water Quality

Erin Povak tests for chlorides and bacteria on behalf of a MS4 permittee. Photo courtesy of Erin Povak.

Stormwater is contaminated by many things, from pet wastes to weedkillers to litter. Stormwater in our area drains directly into storm sewers, which then carry it to our rivers untreated.

Local municipalities improve regional water quality by maintaining green infrastructure and educating the public about stormwater.

These often-unsung efforts are part of the regulatory compliance for state permits on municipal stormwater. They also represent a way to work together across borders.

Watersheds do not respect city boundaries, and neither does the need for watershed-scale solutions like stormwater management.

A watershed is a land area that drains to a body of water like a lake or river. Stormwater is the water that drains off of a watershed’s surface. In Milwaukee, the straight-line boundaries of 29 municipal entities cross the natural boundaries of five river watersheds – the Milwaukee, Menomonee Kinnickinnic and Root Rivers, as well as Oak Creek. All of these rivers flow into Lake Michigan.

The Milwaukee area municipalities have signed “MS4” group permit to manage stormwater pollution. This is the name of their separate municipal storm sewer system. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is responsible for approving MS4 discharges. These permits only apply to stormwater, and not to wastewater that is flushed into the toilet.

The Menomonee Group, and the North Shore Group are the two intergovernmental groups that make up these unique collaborations in the Milwaukee area. The Menomonee Group is composed of 11 co-signatories within the Menomonee river watershed. North Shore has seven co-signatories in the Milwaukee River Watershed.

This map, overlaid with a Google Earth aerial, shows the municipal boundaries for the cities and villages within the Menomonee Watershed. Eleven Milwaukee County municipalities have signed a stormwater permit for a period of five years, committing themselves to managing water pollution jointly. Michael Timm created the map illustration.

Sweet Water, a nonprofit Southeastern Wisconsin Watersheds Trust, Inc., works with municipal departments to manage MS4 permit compliance. Erin Povak is the watershed program manager at Sweet Water. She joined Sweet Water as of 2021.

Povak is a direct partner of DPWs who are often overwhelmed with multiple tasks and have limited staff. The maintenance of green stormwater infrastructure is a common challenge for municipalities. This includes built features that include vegetation and are used to manage the water when it falls.

“We are putting in a lot of green infrastructure, but we don’t really have the staff to maintain them,” said Charlie Imig, director of public services for the City of Glendale, part of North Shore Group. The benefits are obvious. We want to install this stuff. “But I think it has been a battle.”

Imig explained that Sweet Water is the answer. They have a large volunteer group that helps with cleanup activities.

Sweet Water helped Glendale receive a $25,000 America in Bloom Grant sponsored by CN Rail for landscaping improvements at three stormwater ponds. Imig explained that the 2024 project would involve removing invasive plants, dead trees and other debris. The landscaping firm David J. Frank will then return to the site and replant the area.

In addition to the group permits, municipalities are required to conduct targeted outreach and education on a topic that is of concern locally. Sweet Water provides assistance.

Water quality and pet waste are intertwined in West Allis, a part of the Menomonee group.

“West Allis has a landlocked location, so we do not have the same tools as other areas in terms of building ponds and large areas to collect rainwater. We have to select our rainwater methods a bit differently from other communities. We worked with Sweet Water a lot on this permit, and one of the things that we did was pick up pet waste.

Sweet Water developed this glossy postcard-sized poster to educate West Allis residents about the importance of cleaning up pet waste. Image courtesy Rob Hutter.

Pet waste not only adds bacteria to watersheds, but it also contributes towards a rat issue. Sweet Water assisted West Allis in designing and distributing postcards to remind people to pick up their pet waste to reduce rat populations. Hutter also said that many of the new apartments in West Allis have pet waste stations, both to attract tenants who own pets and to keep the area clean.

Hutter stated, “We are rebranding the city.” “So [our motivation] is] in two different ways. “We are required to get a permit to do this, but also [seek] a new way that we want people to view our city.”

Hutter points out that West Allis continues to provide $20 rain barrels at a subsidised rate to residents who are interested. He said this is a popular initiative, which the council funds through their stormwater utility.

Sweet Water, in Wauwatosa helped to amplify an education campaign that targeted owners of large green infrastructures with “best management practices”, or BMPs. They include features such as porous pavements, underground detention system, wet detention basins, biofiltration systems, catch basins and other proprietary systems.

According to a letter Sweet Water sent to 52 property owners with stormwater BMPs in May 2023, the BMPs are designed to reduce or manage stormwater on commercial and institutional properties such as schools and churches.

Sweet Water, a three-page booklet developed by Wauwatosa to educate property owners about inspecting and maintaining their BMPs for stormwater. Photo courtesy Jessica Henderson.

The letter stated that “Inspections reduce the risk of damage such as flooding.” Even if a BMP seems to be working, it may not function as intended. Regular inspections and maintenance are required.

Jessica Henderson is a civil engineer at the City of Wauwatosa. She said that some people may not be aware of their obligations. Wauwatosa sent a letter to property owners every year, but response rates were low.

Henderson explained that Wauwatosa was working with Sweet Water in order to educate owners earlier. Henderson reported that after sending an additional letter to Wauwatosa property owners, 34 properties submitted their inspection reports in 2023. This is up from 15 in 2022.

The watershed permits allow municipalities to learn from one another.

Sweet Water organizes quarterly meetings for the groups. Povak stated, “They meet and present on different topics of interest.” The municipalities will present their successes and failures.

Hutter stated that West Allis learns a great deal from these meetings. What is Greenfield up to? What does Brookfield do? What is Wauwatosa up to? We can all learn from one another, we can take each other’s ideas or – just as important – even ideas that don’t work. This is not top-secret or any other kind of intellectual property. We’re spending public money on these things, and we don’t wish to make the same mistakes again.

He notes that West Allis, for example, learned best practices from Wauwatosa regarding porous paver. West Allis had initially experienced problems with porous pavers that settled over the winter. Wauwatosa solved this problem by adding a fabric to the pavers. Hutter stated that West Allis adopted similar practices.

Green infrastructure becomes more popular as municipalities gain experience in maintenance.

Hutter stated that West Allis will install a porous parking lot near its city hall by 2023 using Green Solutions dollars provided by the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District. He said that because the two lots were separated by an alleyway, the large lot was covered with porous asphalt while the smaller lot had regular asphalt. It’s neat to compare the two surfaces on a rainy morning. The porous asphalt surface allows the water to penetrate.

These activities may not be headline-grabbing, but they all contribute to cleaner Milwaukee water for us. Reduced pet waste helps to reduce bacteria. The maintenance of green infrastructure reduces other pollution metrics, which communities work together to control through their permits.

This work also helps to change the culture of municipal government.

Sweet Water’s Povak stated, “I feel that one of the needles I’m pushing is these DPW departments. We’re changing the way they view their work.” I’ve noticed a shift in the way they think about stormwater and how to educate people.

The MS4 group permit expires every five years. The Menomonee Group Permit was signed in March 2020. This means that the permit must be reviewed and renewed by March 2025. The North Shore Group permit, signed in June 2021, will expire on May 2026. Povak believes that the renewal of five-year permits for groups will help to push the needle even further.

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Michael Timm is a Milwaukee Water Storyteller, a Milwaukee Water Storyteller, for the nonprofit Reflo. He did our previous series on the reintroduction of the sturgeon to the Milwaukee River.

The Wisconsin Department of Administration’s Wisconsin Coastal Management Program and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have funded this project under the Wisconsin Coastal Management Program grant agreement No. AD239125-024.21. The Wisconsin Coastal Management Program and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office for Coastal Management, under the Coastal Zone Management Act (Grant # NA22NOS4190085), funded this project.

Participants in the Water Grant Program