For some Milwaukeeans, summer begins with a dance in the Summerfest water fountain during PrideFest.
For others, it begins with a starry night paddle on the Milwaukee River or the first beach day.
Water puts the sparkle in Milwaukee’s summers and helps define the city’s identity.
“I live to be on the water,” says Bobby Lagerstrom, an avid kayaker and competitive swimmer. “That’s what brought me here. Milwaukee is a great water town.”
In mid-May, Milwaukee Water Commons, a project of the Milwaukee Environmental Consortium, brought several hundred people together at the Best Place at the Historic Pabst Brewery for the Confluence Gathering. The event was the culmination of a two-year process involving 1,300 people and more than 30 groups interested in shaping a vision to make Milwaukee a model water city.
“It was a very robust conversation,” said Milwaukee Water Commons executive director Ann Brummitt. “We talked to people about water — what matters, what are the issues, what are the concerns. And then we really asked people about a vision going forward.”
Milwaukee Water Commons’ slogan is “Together, we’re shaping Milwaukee’s water future.” The nonprofit abides by these principles: Water is an essential element for all life on Earth. Water belongs to no one and cannot be owned. People have a responsibility to protect and preserve clean fresh water. Decisions about the care and use of water must involve everyone. And the Great Lakes are a gift, having “nurtured our ancestors and shaped us as a people and as a community. They continue to sustain us.”
The group operates a water school that collaborates with other organizations on specific programs and cultivating neighborhood leadership. MWC also conducts town hall-style meetings and workshops and works with local artists.
The Confluence Gathering provided the opportunity to launch six water initiatives under the “Water City Agenda.” The vision is for Milwaukee to:
• Be a national leader in “blue-green” jobs. Work is underway to promote the blue-green economy in the city, but the scale needs to grow, according to Brummitt, who previously directed the Milwaukee River Greenway Coalition and worked as a school teacher.
• Make safe, clean and affordable tap water available to every Milwaukeean. A chief concern in Milwaukee, as it is nationally, is aging pipes. “While our tap water that comes out of Milwaukee Water Works is very good, by the time it gets to your kitchen faucet there’s a chance of lead,” Brummitt said.
• Advance green infrastructure practices across the city. “There’s a lot of really good energy going into this goal already,” according to Brummitt, who said elements in new developments might include rain gardens and green roofs, bioswales and curb cuts.
• Make Milwaukee’s three rivers and Lake Michigan swimmable and fishable.
• Offer every Milwaukeean meaningful water experiences. Brummitt made this observation: For all the sailing, kayaking, swimming, fishing and strolling that takes place in Milwaukee, there are children in the city who’ve never been to one of the rivers.
• Celebrate local waters in arts and culture.
“There’s a lot of work to be done,” said Brummitt. “As strong as our water culture is, we’re still losing ground. We can’t keep pace with the environmental degradation. So that’s where we felt there was room to bring in more people and more perspective. Everybody has something to say about the future of water in Milwaukee.”
In the coming months, think tanks will be established to tackle each initiative and, Aug. 7, an annual H20 happening — We Are Water — will be held at Bradford Beach on the Lake Michigan shore.
Institutional partners in carrying out the Water City Agenda include the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Freshwater Sciences and the Metropolitan Milwaukee Sewerage District.
“The science is there, the tools are available and our water policy researchers are ready to help turn these transformative ideas into reality,” Jenny Kehl, director of the Center for Water Policy at UW-M, said in a news statement.
Nonprofit partners in the campaign include leading environmental groups, as well as community and neighborhood organizations such as Alice’s Garden, a nonprofit in the Johnsons Park neighborhood.
“The work Milwaukee Water Commons has taken on is some of the most important work this city will do,” said Venice Williams, director of Alice’s Garden. “It is about preserving the dignity of the ancestral waters of Lake Michigan. It is also about helping every human being who quenches their thirst, bathes their body, rinses their clothes, mops their floors, enjoys their cup of tea to understand one cannot exist without water.”
A sister project, with a regional focus, is the Great Lakes Commons, and organizers in other Great Lakes cities, specifically Toronto and Cleveland, are at work employing the “commons” concept.
“When we started this work, we started to look and see if there was a model for this kind of thing,” said Brummitt. “But there just isn’t a well established framework for a water city. This is our foray into creating that. It will be developed. That’s coming. We’re shaping the agenda in Milwaukee.”
Become a commoner
For more information or to get involved with Milwaukee Water Commons, visit milwaukeewatercommons.org.
Save the date
On Aug. 7, Milwaukee Water Commons will present We Are Water 2016, a communitywide celebration at the north end of Bradford Beach. The event will feature song and dance, artwork and spoken word, and the creation of a large, illuminated image of the Great Lakes in the sand.
In related news …
Carpenter raises concerns for pipeline spills
Wisconsin Sen. Tim Carpenter, D-Milwaukee, asked U.S. Sens. Tammy Baldwin and Ron Johnson to join with U.S. Sens. Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan to make sure the Department of Transportation classifies underwater pipelines in and around the Great Lakes as “offshore” facilities.
Why? Carpenter said under federal law cleanup for “onshore” facilities is capped at $634 million but “offshore” facilities must have resources to cover all costs.
If there were a spill in the water from the pipeline that’s transporting 23 million gallons of crude oil and liquid gas daily, the cleanup could be $1 billion. The pipeline crosses the Straits of Mackinac, connecting Lake Michigan and Lake Huron.
“Our incentives should be to protect the waters and avoid economic catastrophe of spills,” Carpenter said.
Great Lakes group moves Waukesha water request forward
Representatives of Great Lakes states and provinces have given preliminary approval to a precedent-setting request by Waukesha to draw water from Lake Michigan.
The regional group agreed the water diversion application by Waukesha complies with a Great Lakes protection compact if certain conditions are met, including an average limit of 8.2 million gallons a day — 20 percent less than the original request.
The group includes eight states and two Canadian provinces. Minnesota abstained from voting during a conference call earlier this spring.
Governors of the eight states, or their representatives, will meet in Chicago later this month to consider the conditional approval and vote on Waukesha’s request, which has drawn substantial opposition from environmental groups.