Milwaukee Permitting a Watershed Moment, in Landscape Architecture Magazine

Copyright © 2005 Sulfur
Copyright © 2005 Sulfur

Milwaukee has begun to make permitting for stormwater and wastewater more efficient and effective by structuring it around natural, not political, boundaries.

The city gets its drinking water from Lake Michigan, into which the city’s urban creeks and rivers flow. It would be better if the situation were reversed, and cities took clean water from upstream of their boundaries, before the lawn fertilizers, combined sewer overflows, and other yucky stuff gets into the water.

There’s only one problem: Urban rivers typically flow through more than one municipality, and permits are managed city by city.  Cities might have different strategies or timelines, or might even find themselves competing for the same financial resources to improve the same stream.

“The problem we have,” says Kevin Shafer, executive director of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, “[is that] the Menomonee River, for example, has 18 different communities that drain into it.” That means 18 different municipal permits, with 18 different sets of requirements, and 18 sets of projects meant to improve and maintain water quality.

Shafer’s organization (which is primarily responsible for sewage treatment but also gets involved in overall watershed quality) has a different idea for Milwaukee: watershed-based permitting, or WBP. This framework combines all the individual municipal permits in a watershed into a single group permit. It allows cities within a watershed to work on attaining permit goals together, and to seek funding together to do so.

For instance, several Menomonee River communities might pool their resources and build a new wetland system for pre-treating some particularly egregious source of urban runoff. Or all 18 cities could take on a major re-naturalization project near the river’s tailwaters to boost water quality one last time. In Wisconsin, public education is also a required aspect of MS4 permitting. Under WBP, cities could create a unified message about the health of the watershed, and, again, pool their resources to do so.

Watershed permitting could save towns and review agencies a good deal of money. And in doing so, it focuses on the health of each watershed with its unique challenges. WBP in Milwaukee is still in the very early stages. The Menomonee watershed is the only one in the works right now, and about 75 percent of the communities have approved the new permit language. If it passes, the five-year permit for the whole watershed will take effect as a pilot project, and WBP will then, it is hoped, roll out to the Milwaukee area’s five other watersheds.

Landscape Architecture Magazine, December 2012, p.26



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