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On a warm Tuesday afternoon in August, after the sun had dried the morning rain, children played on a jungle gym outside of the Milwaukee Women’s Center in West Milwaukee. In the background, the sounds of shovels, steel tampers, and shuffling gravel signaled the installation of the Center’s new clean and green rainwater harvesting system. Funded by a generous $5,000 Mini-Grant from Sweet Water and designed by a team of sustainable water and infrastructure engineers from the non-profit Reflo, the system will collect rainwater to nourish the raised-bed gardens installed by Milwaukee Area Science Advocates (MASA) in May 2018. The system will also divert up to 275 gallons of rainwater from the city’s overburdened sewer systems.

This 275 gallon cistern collects rainwater runoff from the roof of the Milwaukee Women’s Center. The black tarp surrounding the container is to prevent sunlight from infiltrating and causing algae growth in the tank.

Since 2008, Sweet Water has been devoted to protecting and restoring the Greater Milwaukee Area watersheds. Funding small scale watershed protection projects, like the Women’s Center rainwater collection system, is just one example of how Sweet Water aims to make our shared water resources healthy for the community. Benefits of the rainwater collection system include providing clean water for the Center’s vegetable gardens and reducing the demand of the municipal water system. Also, it improves the water quality in the area’s watershed which channels rainfall to nearby sources of water, such as rivers, reservoirs, and lakes.

The Milwaukee Women’s Center is located in the Milwaukee River watershed. Stormwater runoff and snowmelt travel through the watershed on its way to waterways. “When that stormwater is rushing through parking lots, it’s picking up pesticides and contaminants from cars and streets and it’s taking all of this, rumbling it together, and taking it straight to our streams and lakes,” noted MASA President, Nora Sadik. Properly collecting rainwater and reducing stormwater runoff prevents contaminants from your roof and streets from entering Milwaukee’s waterways, and helps recharge groundwater levels if collected rainwater is used on site. Protecting our waterways is particularly important, since our local waterways discharge into Lake Michigan, our drinking water source.

Following the installation of the rainwater collection system, a detailed and engaging presentation was delivered by Reflo on how to operate the cistern and why rainwater collection is important. Essentially, rainwater comes down pipes from the pitched roof, and goes into an initial holding tank. This initial holding tank stores what is known as the ‘first flush’ or water that could potentially contain contaminants from the roof. Once that fills, new water coming in is diverted into the cistern, where it can be drained or exit through a spigot. Following Reflo’s presentation, MASA presented a rainwater runoff educational program where children participated in a hands-on learning activity. Children examined how different types of areas; such as sandy riverbanks, muddy lakes, highways, playgrounds, and parking lots filter stormwater. Using ‘contaminated’ water, the effects of rainwater runoff were visualized as water passed through substances such as concrete, rocks, dirt, or sand.

Water collection is not the only way the Milwaukee Women’s Center has taken steps to have greener and more sustainable infrastructure. MASA installed an urban garden, which provides a generous supply of fresh herbs and vegetables throughout the season. Stemming from this, the Urban Garden Project educates families on how to grow their own food, shop on a budget, preserve food, compost, and more. In the near future, thanks to a donation from Jarden Home Brands, a canning and preserving educational program is scheduled for residents and their families. Visit here to get involved! 

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