As director of Milwaukee’s Environmental Collaboration Office, Erick Shambarger works to guide the city’s approach to improved sustainability and resilience to storms. As highlighted in a recent “Mitigation Matters” issue brief from The Pew Charitable Trusts, Milwaukee has found success in using regulations to enhance flood mitigation and lower flood risks in the city. These successes include the installation of green infrastructure able to handle more than 10 million gallons of stormwater, with a goal of 50 million gallons of capacity by 2024. Pew spoke to Shambarger to get his thoughts on Milwaukee’s progress—and plans for the future.
Q: How is Milwaukee impacted by flooding, and were there specific challenges that led to new efforts to reduce those risks?
A: Yes. Milwaukee experienced so-called 100-year storms in 2008 and 2010 that led to extensive flooding and basement backups. We had localized flooding in May of this year. We also recognize that with climate change, the risk of extreme storms and flooding will further increase. We aim to reduce the number of combined sewer overflows during heavy rains.
Q: Pew’s “Mitigation Matters” research showed that the city is encouraging the use of green infrastructure to capture stormwater and wastewater runoff. Tell us more about that, including how the Regional Green Infrastructure Plan and related policies spurred important projects.
A: That’s right. The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) provides water reclamation and flood management services to the city of Milwaukee and an additional 28 communities in our metropolitan area. MMSD developed a Regional Green Infrastructure Plan in 2013. In 2019, the city of Milwaukee adopted its own green infrastructure plan that complements the regional plan. We also adopted policies to require green infrastructure on large redevelopments, set a standard to include green infrastructure on city road and alley reconstruction projects, and established funding commitments to add green infrastructure to Milwaukee public school schoolyards as well as other municipal and commercial parking lots.
Q: How have you and the city won support and engagement from residents in mitigation efforts?
A: To build support, it’s important to talk about the many co-benefits of green infrastructure beyond stormwater management. In Milwaukee, we talk about removing excess pavement and adding functional green space as a health and beautification strategy. This really hits home when you think about greening schoolyards. Schools, parents, teachers, and kids all understand that green schoolyards—which can also manage stormwater—are much better and healthier than blacktop-only schoolyards.
Q: How does Milwaukee coordinate flood risk reduction with other localities, particularly regarding waterways that span multiple jurisdictions?
A: Having a regional stormwater and wastewater utility is very helpful for managing our water…