Leveraging nature-based solutions and education to boost water quality, jobs across the Great Lakes

Lake Michigan in Muskegon

This is the approximate percentage of Milwaukee’s population that “lives in a neighborhood with high flood exposure, high flood vulnerability, or both,” according to a Flood Health Vulnerability Assessment (FHVA) conducted by Groundwork Milwaukee, in collaboration with several other organizations.

Within the FHVA, one of the high exposure and vulnerability areas identified in Milwaukee is Metcalf Park. Blanketed by industrial corridors, the community has faced long-term challenges, including redlining, economic, and health-related concerns.

Social, economic, and health concerns are all impacted by the flood vulnerability risks present in the community.

While the physical damage flooding can cause is clearly visible, “more frequent and intense flooding also has a direct impact on our health,” the Assessment highlights. “In urban areas with aging stormwater infrastructure, heavy rain can cause sewage overflows and waterborne diseases to spread. Standing water following storms can become hosts to mosquitos and other disease-carrying insects. Flooding in homes and basements can lead to mildew and mold, which worsens asthma, exacerbates other respiratory challenges, and causes illness.”

This is why water treatment and quality are essential.

Categorizing and treating water

“Clean water is a basic need and every person deserves access to clean, safe, and affordable drinking water, as well as water sanitation services,” says Laura Rubin, director of Healing Our Waters – Great Lakes Coalition.

Courtesy of Laura RubinDirector of Healing Our Waters – Great Lakes Coalition Laura RubinWater can be categorized into three categories — green water, blue water, and gray water. Green water is found naturally in our ecosystems in the form of rain, mist, and humidity captured by plant life, says a Water: Economics and Policy report presented by the Global Development And Environment Institute, Tufts University. Blue water comes from bodies of water, such as lakes, and is used by humans for activities such as drinking and irrigated agriculture. Finally, gray water, or wastewater, refers to water that has been used and treated to remove impurities and pollutants.

While the terms “wastewater” and “wastewater treatment” are becoming more common, many are still unclear on what they actually refer to. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, simply put, wastewater is “used water.” This used water comes from various business and personal sources including washing machines, showers, toilets, sinks, and more. Contained within this water are “human waste, food scraps, oils, soaps, and chemicals.” Due to this, it is essential that this water be treated before it is re-released into the environment.

“We need healthy waters to have healthy communities,” says Rubin. “Updating, fixing, and modernizing drinking water and wastewater infrastructure is essential to protect the drinking water and the health of our communities.”

While nature can handle treating small volumes of water, looking at mass volumes — the billions of gallons humans produce daily — requires intervention. “Treatment plants reduce pollutants in wastewater to a level nature can handle” and help offset the harmful impacts of untreated wastewater.

Impacts of untreated wastewater

“Managing water and wastewater are absolutely critical to society,” says Mark Luttenton, interim director of the R. B. Annis Water Resources Institute (AWRI) at Grand Valley State University, based in Muskegon, Michigan.

Tyler HerbstreithR. B. Annis Water Resources Institute in Muskegon, Michigan

Left untreated, wastewater has the potential to create a ripple effect of damages. Looking at an individual or community level, health concerns are paramount.

“We went through a period in our history when waterborne diseases were a major issue and we still have outbreaks of waterborne disease,” Luttenton says. “Wastewater treatment and water management help maintain a safe water supply and limit disease outbreaks.”

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), at a global level in 2022, at least 1.7 billion people were accessing water from a drinking source that contained fecal contaminants. Additionally, “absent, inadequate or inappropriately managed water and sanitation services expose individuals to preventable health risks” including diarrhea, Hepatitis A, dysentery, and polio.

For adults and children alike, improved water quality can be impactful. The WHO also states quality water results in “less expenditure on health, as people are less likely to fall ill and incur medical costs and are better able to remain economically productive.” Additionally, for youths who can avoid diseases from their water, it can lead to “better health, and therefore better school attendance, with positive longer-term consequences for their lives.”

Outside of human livelihood, environmental considerations exist as well. Clean water is essential for the well-being of ecosystems and various species of animals such as fish and birds. From an economic perspective, industries that rely on water, including farming, fishing, and the marine industry also require clean water for sustainability. Pollutants and harmful substances in the water can cause beach closures, limited boating and swimming, and reduced fish and shellfish harvesting.

Courtesy of MMSDRain barrel highlighted by MMSDFocusing solely on the agricultural industry, the United Nations University reports wastewater “can increase yields, cut the need for fertilizers, and improve soil quality; and if collected and treated properly, it could provide drinking water. In addition, the by-product of sewage treatment – sludge – can be used to produce energy. Some treatment plants even use it for renewable energy purposes.”

When wastewater is properly treated, the benefits can be seen throughout these categories as well.

The WHO states “improved water supply and sanitation, and better management of water resources, can boost countries’ economic growth, and can contribute greatly to poverty reduction.”

Proactive responses to treatment along the Great Lakes

Serving over 1 million people throughout the Greater Milwaukee region, the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) is a regional government agency providing water reclamation and flood management services with a mission of “(protecting) public health and the environment through world-class, cost-effective water resource management, leadership, and partnership.”

According to MMSD’s 2022 Annual Performance Report, within their sewer service area, they captured 98.8% of wastewater and treated 63.1 billion gallons of water.

Led by guiding principles of a sustainable bottom line approach as well as collaboration and water quality leadership, MMSD continues to push forward toward their 2035 Vision for a “healthier Milwaukee region and a cleaner Lake Michigan” with goals of “attaining zero overflows, zero basement backups, and improved stormwater management.”

Courtesy of Kevin ShaferMMSD Executive Director Kevin Shafer, P.E.
MMSD approaches their initiatives from the perspective that “you need to try to manage rainwater where it falls,” says Executive Director Kevin L. Shafer, P.E. Initiated in 2002, MMSD’s Green Infrastructure Program is focused on reducing the amount of rainwater that enters the sewer system as well as reducing flooding within the local rivers. Since its inception, the program has continued to expand.

“The program has progressed to the point where today we pay our municipalities to implement green infrastructure projects on parking lots, roofs, and roadways,” says Shafer.

Courtesy of MMSDA finished rain garden from MMSD

From this progression, the organization launched its Green and Healthy Schools program, which also impacts several areas within its service system. 

“A portion of our regional sewer system serves areas drained by municipal combined sewers,” says Shafer. “Within this combined sewer area are large areas of asphalt and concrete school properties (consisting) of playgrounds and parking lots.”

Focused on students and teachers, the Green and Healthy Schools program uses a multi-year approach, engaging with approximately three schools throughout that time.

“The Green and Healthy Schools program allows MMSD to retrofit these school properties while also educating the students on the benefits of clean water and natural areas,” says Shafer.

The program’s impact is clearly seen “by reducing stormwater runoff, creating healthier, safer areas for kids to play, and [promoting] learning about the benefits of clean water,” Shafer says.

In addition to the benefits to the school campuses directly, the impact of the program spans even further.

“This program provides visible examples of green infrastructure for the community, which is helping the Milwaukee region to become more resilient to our changing climate,” says Shafer.

Courtesy of MMSDA green roof in Milwaukee highlighted by MMSD

For him, Green and Healthy Schools is “one of the most rewarding programs at MMSD.”

Luttenton and the AWRI team also support communities and the next generation through education and outreach. Their programming focuses on the importance of water and positive stewardship, Luttenton says. Since 1992, AWRI has been able to engage with over 192,000 individuals, primarily students, through their hands-on science experiences.

Tyler HerbstreithW.G. Jackson docked in Muskegon, Michigan

“We are fortunate to have two research vessels, the W.G. Jackson and the D.J. Angus, which serve as floating classrooms,” he says. “We emphasize the organisms that live in the water and the negative impacts of pollution.”

Despite the work of organizations like AWRI and MMSD, change is not without its challenges.

Connecting the dots to area jobs

MMSD’s steady progression toward the initiatives laid out in their 2035 Vision include using new business models for rapid scale-up of nature-based solutions. In 2020, MMSD hired a private partner, CIS, to lead a team of experienced local delivery partners. By providing cost-effective, large-scale community-based partnerships (CBP), CIS’s team is delivering nature-based solutions and investing in low-to-moderate income areas.

CBPs are a proven model for equitable implementation of climate-resilient infrastructure and programs. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency helped set up the first CBP in Prince George’s County, Maryland in 2015 to address stormwater pollution in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Through their partnership, that county has invested over $350 million in total development costs, and to date, 215 projects have been completed. Fifty-four percent of the hours worked have been by county residents and 79% of businesses contracted are either local, women, and/or minority-owned business entities (W/MBE) as reported by the County.

Courtesy of Groundwork MilwaukeeCommunity residents celebrating progressMMSD’s CBP aggregates and streamlines the financial, procurement, and project delivery efforts within MMSD’s service area. Additionally, this partnership is building green stormwater infrastructure throughout the greater Milwaukee region to capture nearly 12 million gallons of stormwater across 19 municipalities. 

“In 2024 and beyond, it is critical to tie-in environmental benefits with broader economic growth of a region,” says Sanjiv Sinha, Ph.D., Chief Executive Officer of CIS, based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. 

“Why a community would want to not benefit from investments made within it, makes little sense. Specifically noting a focus on underserved communities that can benefit greatly from good, local jobs,” says Sinha. “But care must be taken to ensure workable models being deployed have been proven elsewhere.” 

Challenges to progress

Despite steady progression working toward the initiatives laid out in their 2035 Vision, like many in this space, MMSD has faced challenges along the way.

“One of the initial challenges we faced was a lack of understanding and acceptance of green infrastructure,” says Shafer.

Fortunately for the organization, they have been able to mitigate these challenges over time.

“Through our successful programs we have overcome this challenge to the point today that people are expecting green infrastructure on all developments,” Shafer says.

Courtesy of MMSDA bioswale being utilized to manage water runoff

Since it began, one of the main priorities for Healing Our Waters – Great Lakes Coalition has been to improve the water infrastructure throughout the region, Rubin says. Within their area and others, funding and policy can be a hindrance to progress.

“The region’s eight states have a backlog of more than $188 billion to update the region’s drinking water and wastewater infrastructure,” Rubin says. “We are actively working to substantially boost the federal investment in water infrastructure in the region and nationally.”

Looking ahead, organizations are working to overcome these and other struggles while fighting an even larger battle — climate change.

Courtesy of Groundwork MilwaukeeTeam members working together on a development
Director of Climate Justice and Impact, Jeremy Hoffman, Ph.D., at Groundwork USA can relate to the challenges being presented by the shifting climate.

“As the global climate continues to warm, that means there's more energy in the atmosphere to fuel more extreme storms. These storms cause more rain to fall in a shorter amount of time, resulting in more flooding threats,” he says. “So, water management is a critical way to ensure the safety and resilience of our communities in the face of a changing climate.”

When it comes to ongoing management, the resources need to be in place to support continuous change.

“We just cannot build green infrastructure fast enough. We also face the challenge of ongoing green infrastructure maintenance. Our 20+ year green infrastructure program now has facilities that need to be maintained,” Shafer says. “This is a great opportunity for constituent employment and we are trying to bring these … items together into a cohesive program.”

Utilizing nature-based initiatives

In service of progress, communities are looking into new and innovative solutions.
Courtesy of Mark LuttentonInterim director of the R. B. Annis Water Resources Institute (AWRI) at Grand Valley State University Mark Luttenton
“In the past, the standard model for dealing with water was to move it off the land and into a lake or stream as quickly as possible. Stormwater drains, culverts, and ditches were the common solution,” Luttenton says. “This approach certainly moves water efficiently, but it also results in more pollution being carried to our waterways. Communities are doing a much better job utilizing nature-based solutions to help protect our water ecosystems.”

A nature-based solution being used throughout cities nationwide is urban reforestation. One type of green stormwater infrastructure (GSI) mitigation, planting urban trees is “designed to mimic natural processes that filter and retain rain where it falls.” Other GSI mitigation efforts include water harvesting, green roofs, and permeable pavements, according to the USDA’s Urban Forest Systems and Green Stormwater Infrastructure report. Trees naturally capture rainwater on their leaves and branches, in essence helping to reduce the volume of stormwater.

And while it may seem that a potentially small item like a few trees is not impactful in the grand scheme, that is actually not the case.

“Urban reforestation is important to, first and foremost, provide open green spaces for people of all ages to enjoy,” says Rubin.

“I'm sure some people believe planting a tree will not do much for their neighborhood,” says Shafter. “Establishing an urban tree canopy helps reduce stormwater runoff and reduce the heat islands our cities face and makes our neighborhoods more inviting.”

In addition to these impacts, communities can benefit in other ways. “People want to live where they can see, feel, and touch nature,” says Shafer. “Trees provide this outlet.”

“Reforestation has the unique benefit of being an improvement that can occur no matter the land use. Reforestation is also an approach that will help us slow the changes in the climate that we currently are experiencing, improve the local economy, and make our neighborhoods better places to live,” Shafer says.

Focusing on the greater good for all

A technical assistance and capacity-building support nonprofit, Groundwork USA provides support throughout their country-wide network.

Courtesy of Groundwork USAGroundwork USA Director of Climate Justice and Impact Jeremy Hoffman, Ph. D.“We help support community improvement planning initiatives through targeted skills training opportunities, shared learning events for disseminating best practices, and marshaling federal funding to expand program impact,” says Hoffman.

Communities are working together to create nature-based solutions to address water management concerns.

“One of the best examples of this comes from Groundwork Milwaukee, who is leveraging high-resolution flood vulnerability data to organize residents around nature-based solutions strategies they'd like to see in their own neighborhood in Metcalfe Park,” says Hoffman.

Within their roles, Hoffman and his team support 100s of green infrastructure projects annually. One additional lens they utilize within their work is equity.

Looking at the Metcalf Park project as an example, equity is top of mind.

“With a history of targeted disinvestment, like redlining and a legacy of industrial land uses increasing their flood risks, Groundwork Milwaukee's Climate Safe Neighborhoods program empowers residents to advocate for more equitable distribution of resources to fund more nature-based solutions now and into the future,” Hoffman says.

Equity considerations are also in play when it comes to job creation.
Courtesy of CISCIS’s Climate Resilience and Environmental Justice Director Sri Vedachalam, Ph.D.
“Green jobs offer underserved communities opportunities for stable employment and skill development, fostering economic empowerment, and resilience,” says Sri Vedachalam, Ph.D., CIS’s climate resilience and environmental justice director.

“Additionally, by promoting environmentally sustainable practices, these jobs can improve the community's health and quality of life, addressing systemic inequalities, and promoting social equity,” Vedachalam says.

Opportunities for further impact

“We are so fortunate to have the Great Lakes at our doorstep, but because of the size and volume of the Great Lakes, it is easy for individuals or groups to feel that there is little they can do to protect or improve water quality,” Luttenton says.

Looking ahead, there are numerous opportunities for further advancement and impact.

At the individual level, community members can do their part to help on a micro-scale. From swapping out water appliances for more efficient units and picking up our trash to building rain barrels and creating rain gardens, “improved water quality starts with us,” Shafer says.

Since one action can create a ripple effect, thinking about issues that are present “at the local level or at the level of their watershed” is a good starting point, according to Luttenton. “Pollution that goes into the Grand River in Jackson can ultimately end up in Lake Michigan. If everyone would realize that their individual action can impact water quality, we can collectively have a significant impact.”

Rubin also encourages people to seek to get involved as there are many organizations focusing on improvements at every level. “I’d encourage individuals who care about water quality to take a look around and see if there’s a group whose mission aligns with them and see how they can get involved,” she says.

Hoffman echoes this as well by encouraging individuals to “speak up in their local communities.” He also reinforces the importance of thinking about equity.

“Organizations can commit to leveraging resources to assist communities who are hit first and worst by these increasing climate threats,” he says.

For Shafer, from an organizational standpoint, using a broader approach to management is one place to start. “Water managers need to start managing water at the watershed scale. Too often we only manage water within municipal boundaries and only through siloed utilities,” he says. “Flood waters do not stop at a municipal boundary — we need to always look upstream and downstream. Rural, suburban, and urban water management approaches can be best integrated within an entire watershed.”

Finally, investment and policy reform in this area can also lead to continued advancement. “Boosting federal investment in water infrastructure will be essential. We’ve had some big successes in the past few years, most notably as one of many environmental groups that championed the bipartisan infrastructure law, which will be investing more than $50 billion to help upgrade the nation’s water infrastructure,” says Rubin. “But more needs to be done and we continue to work with allies in Congress to increase federal investment in essential water infrastructure.”

Courtesy of CISChief Executive Officer of CIS Sanjiv Sinha, Ph.D.In addition, Sinha promotes the use of private capital to help foster progress.

“We must get better at leveraging private capital as government may not have the resources to solve all of our problems, all the time,” he says. “Recent focus on leveraging private capital in large federal initiatives such as the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund is a positive trend in that regard.”

Rubin also hopes these changes will have a positive impact on communities and areas that have been historically underserved.

“For far too long, many communities were overlooked or neglected, resulting in disproportionate environmental impacts and harm,” she says. “We’re looking to reverse those environmental justices, as are countless other groups. So in the coming years, I see an increased emphasis on helping communities that have been impacted the most by pollution and environmental harm. All of these efforts can help secure that all of the people of this state and country have clean, safe, and affordable water.”

This is part of a series of stories based on the work of Resilient Infrastructure & Sustainable Communities and is underwritten by them.

About Leandra Nisbet: Leandra Nisbet, Owner of Stingray Advisory Group LLC and Co-Owner of Brightwork Marine LLC, has over 15 years of experience in leadership, sales & marketing, and graphic design. She helps businesses grow and assists with: strategic planning, marketing concept development/implementation, risk management, and financial organization. She is actively involved in the community, sitting on several Boards and committees, and has been recognized as one of the 40 Under 40 Business Leaders in Grand Rapids.

Contact Leandra Nisbet by email at leandra.rapidgrowth@gmail.com!
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