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“A region that sustains together, stays together” is a motto that might just make it to the airwaves in Milwaukee, Wisconsin someday. Getting to that point has not been a straightforward path, and this region may certainly have some challenges in positioning itself as a leader in the sustainability movement. But in Milwaukee, as in other urban areas, sustainability has rapidly become much more urgent with each passing day.

The winding path the region has taken is predicated on the goal of protecting Lake Michigan. This waterbody generated Milwaukee's initial existence and it is the continued health of this waterbody that will sustain the region in the future. Establishing a common vision for understanding this basic concept was the first hurdle in developing a regional perspective, closely followed by the growing realization that a clean Lake Michigan can help regenerate the region's economy.

Protecting Lake Michigan means that revitalizing the region's tributary rivers and the natural environment will also be needed. To do this the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) instituted a holistic, integrated watershed-based approach to improving water resources in the region. Adopting a philosophy “that the whole is stronger than the sum of the parts” allowed MMSD to undertake a linked series of initiatives that would become the foundation to carry out the vision of long-term sustainability based on a clean Lake Michigan. First, MMSD began a green infrastructure pilot program with a variety of demonstration projects whose goals were reducing stormwater runoff quantities and pollutants. Concurrently, a regional study was initiated by MMSD and the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (SEWRPC) to determine the sources of pollution in area waterways. This initiative, the Water Quality Initiative (WQI), was a watershed-focused long-term planning process to improve water resources in the Greater Milwaukee Watersheds. The WQI focused on three components common to the watershed approach: using nature's watershed boundaries as the unit of study, relying on detailed, groundbreaking science for informed decision-making, and involving the public through education and partnerships.

In 2007, all of the MMSD's efforts coalesced into a monumental facilities planning report that revealed that the 3 billion of work completed on wastewater treatment plants and on the reduction of combined and sanitary sewer overflows (CSOs and SSOs) had paid off, and that the next phase of the region's efforts to improve water quality must focus on polluted stormwater runoff. The integrated scientific data produced in the WQI planning effort led to the key findings below:

Nonpoint pollution (e.g., stormwater runoff) is the largest source of fecal coliform bacteria, a primary pollutant of concern.

Reducing (or even eliminating) SSOs will result in little or no water quality improvement on an annual basis.

Significant improvements to water quality can only be achieved through regional implementation of extensive measures to reduce pollution from nonpoint sources.

This Facilities Plan confirmed the value of green infrastructure and the need to embed it into the environment, both from a large-scale perspective and right on down to individual private homes. And, while this report culminated the efforts of the WQI, it also posed some significant challenges to Milwaukee's future. Namely,

How do we implement a regional water resource plan when not all of the representatives of the various pollutant sources have the same regulatory requirements and are part of the discussion?

How can we make the most efficient investment in regional water resources?

How do we initiate and instill a regional mind-set of sustainability to protect Lake Michigan for generations to come?

These questions have led stakeholders to focus more regionally and to begin forming a regional partnership known as the Southeastern Wisconsin Watersheds Trust (SWWT). SWWT is becoming a collaborative forum that provides an opportunity for all interested parties to come together and voice their concerns and support of water resource improvement efforts in the Greater Milwaukee Watersheds. Ultimately, water resource improvements must proceed from a position of joint responsibility and authority that demands cooperation and positive interaction throughout the public and private sectors of the Greater Milwaukee Watersheds. It is from that joint collaboration that the region can chart its future of sustainability. This comprehensive, science-based endeavor allows the MMSD to now focus on the true causes of water pollution, one drop at a time.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 2008-01-01

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