The Climate Corner: Making A Difference through Green Infrastructure

By Kevin Shafer


Adapting to a changing climate does not take rocket science to be successful. Everyone can make a difference. Climate change can be overwhelming and scary, but, if everyone implemented one daily simple step to reduce his or her use of resources, collectively we can make a big difference. The challenge comes when we try to integrate these simple acts for climate into larger business-based initiatives. To be successful, large initiatives must provide customer benefits and a return on investment. The win-win is to foster change while saving people money.

The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) is implementing many large-scale initiatives; however, the core of these efforts is still individual initiatives. Climate change presents significant stormwater challenges as a result of more severe weather. MMSD has set a goal of capturing 740 million gallons of stormwater using a different, more natural type of infrastructure called green infrastructure.

While some areas of the country are becoming green through massive public works projects, MMSD is approaching this challenge by promoting green infrastructure in people’s backyards. Through incentivized pricing of rain garden plants, rain barrels, porous pavement, green roofs and bioswales, we are working to establish a movement where neighbors are helping neighbors build and install systems that will benefit their community and our climate. MMSD also promotes the use of water-efficient fixtures in homes through public education and rebates on high efficiency toilets. These are all small steps, but they add up and they all count. Through these efforts, water usage is reduced or stormwater is reused; either way the individual saves money on his water bill, the MMSD system benefits all of its customers and our environment is protected.

On large-scale projects, MMSD is ripping out concrete-lined channels, replacing the concrete with natural systems that, in many cases, look like the natural creeks of Door County. This reinvigorates the pride that communities once had in their rivers, drawing people to the waterfront to recreate and relax. When completed, the rivers will no longer look like interstate highways, but rather like bubbling brooks, and we will better be able to handle significant stormwater events.

Besides addressing stormwater issues, MMSD is also striving to use less fossil fuel to address climate change. MMSD has set a goal of converting to 100 percent renewable energy sources by the year 2035 and to do this in a manner that again saves our ratepayers money. MMSD uses solar power generation today at several of its facilities. While this is important, the greatest step toward a 100-percent renewable energy future for us will come from collecting methane gas that seeps from landfills and is captured from human waste. Both sources have the potential of turning MMSD from an energy consumer to a clean power producer. This will reduce future energy costs, provide a new source of revenue and help to mitigate climate change.

Let’s not kid ourselves, climate change is scary. It worries me, and it is here now. Nevertheless, I know that we can all help by conserving water, turning the lights off, and using our cars less. At the same time, as communities we need to develop large-scale projects using a more natural lens. Returning to natural approaches will help us adapt successfully to the changes we face, changes that have the potential to cause great harm if we ignore them.


Kevin ShaferKevin Shafer is executive director of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD). He is responsible for overall management, administration, leadership, and direction for the MMSD. His vision has helped move the MMSD toward a watershed-based, sustainable approach to infrastructure management. His regional leadership was recognized through MMSD’s receipt of the 2012 U.S. Water Prize, awarded by the U.S. Water Alliance. Shafer has an undergraduate degree in science and civil engineering with a specialty in water resources from the University of Illinois and a Master’s degree in civil engineering from the University of Texas.


The Climate Corner is a monthly column featuring a variety of writers from around the state and Door County addressing various aspects of the challenges and opportunities climate change presents. The column is sponsored by the Climate Change Coalition of Door County, which is dedicated to “helping to keep our planet a cool place to live.” The Coalition is always open to new members and ideas. Contact the Coalition at [email protected].

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