Erin Petersen

Urban Gardens lead the way for water policy in Milwaukee

By - Apr 15th, 2011 04:00 am
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photo: Honeygurl_Tanya Ann (Flickr)

In early 2010, Milwaukee Water Works (MWW) announced that it would no longer issue permits to entities other than the Fire Department to use city hydrants for water. It seemed benign enough; fire hydrants are, after all, there to put out fires.

Except that across the city of Milwaukee, dozens of community gardens rely on those hydrants to water their beds, and pay a not-insignificant sum for that access. Though Wisconsin has seen record rainfall in the last two years, there is always the possibility of drought. Without hydrant hook-ups, many gardens could be left high and, well…dry.

Upon hearing the announcement, community gardeners and urban agriculture advocates immediately sprang into action, contacting elected officials and MWW to voice their opposition.

Victory Garden in Kilbourn Park. Photo by Dan Knauss via (CC)

“The compost hit the fan,” says Janice Christensen, a founder of the Kilbourn Park Victory Garden and Editor in Chief of The Riverwest Currents. Christensen began documenting the water access issues with the monthly column “Making Waves,” providing a succinct timeline of events from August 2010 to present.

In response to MWW’s proposal, several organizations, including The Victory Garden Initiative (VGI), Milwaukee Urban Gardens (MUG) and The YMCA Community Development Center (represented by Christensen) came together to find solutions. Together they created a Water Policy Task Force and began holding meetings with gardeners and city representatives.

The issue at stake is fair access to water and other resources in order to maintain efficient, sustainable gardens. While urban agriculture has thrived in Milwaukee for the last decade and longer, the city itself is still without a defined policy or best practices for community gardens on city-owned land.

There are plenty of solutions and alternatives to hydrants, but implementing them leads down a path of redundancies and red tape.

For example, certain sites are looking into rainwater harvesting and clay pot irrigation systems.The Hide House garden recently teamed up with UWM’s Engineers Without Borders to create a low impact system that would harvest rain water from the roof of the Hide House and then utilize an underground irrigation system to disperse it throughout the garden’s 115 plots. Others, like Kilbourn Park, are encouraging gardeners to purchase Ollas, a type of clay pot that stores water and is buried in a plot, helping to conserve and evenly distribute water.

While these are both excellent methods (and in the long-term, cost-effective), incorporating them is not as easy as it sounds. There are issues of cost and land ownership to consider. While the exact number is not clear, there are many community gardens that sit on land leased from the city, and as such, those sites must follow a different set of rules, according to Gretchen Mead, Executive Director of VGI.

“When land is city-owned, you can’t make long-term improvements,” she says, explaining that certain projects like soil testing or water collection would cause the city to incur the costs associated with their implementation. Some gardeners are able to purchase the land from the city, but when that isn’t feasible, they are left with few options.

As they began to peel back the layers of the proverbial onion, both Mead and Christensen say that it became apparent that Milwaukee was in desperate need of urban agriculture policy — starting with clearly defined water policy.

The Task Force created two groups — a Policy group to help shape a focused plan for water use in Milwaukee gardens, and a Strategies group to assess current practices and alternatives for existing and future gardens. They have been working closely with MWW, who both Christensen and Mead say have been extremely helpful in this many-layered process. While the Task Force is working out a future plan, the MWW said will not shutoff hydrant access to gardens.

“The City of Milwaukee does want to invest in urban gardening, and they’ve put their money where their mouth is, so to speak,” says Mead. “It’s about recognizing the value in people growing their own food…to do that, there needs to be easy, fair access to water.”

In a separate conversation, Christensen echoed Mead’s sentiment. “Urban agriculture is a new industry in our city, and it is a wealth-producing industry.” She added that a 4″x8″ bed can produce a hefty amount of organic food, the equivalent of about $650 worth of vegetables each season.

The Strategies group is working with a representative from the City to map out existing community gardens (both on city and private land), and then assess each site’s current practices, resources and needs. They are evaluating things like the number of urban gardens in Milwaukee, which are city-owned, which sites currently have hydrant permits, what their alternative options are, what sort of tools they have at their disposal, etc.

Once this data is collected, it will help shape a comprehensive policy.

Though the details are still slightly nebulous, Christensen says that the Policy group has defined several major points which we be essential to future water policy:

— The city recognizes that there is ongoing progress in the efforts to find and implement alternatives to using hydrant water, including rainwater retention strategies, and city water will continue to be available until new strategies are implemented

— City water will continue to be available as backup during times of drought

“I think the best way to put it is to say that the City of Milwaukee wants us to succeed before they’ll allow us to put in rain harvesting systems or cisterns in city-owned land,” says Bruce Wiggins, Executive Director of Milwaukee Urban Gardens (MUG). “But in order to succeed, we need to be able to implement those systems. It’s a  catch-22, and really shows why this sort of policy is necessary.”

The group has looked to examples from cities across the nation for guidance, unfortunately to little avail in terms of defined water policy. The work is still in progress, while Policy and Strategy groups continue to collaborate with the City and MWW to determine the best course of action.

“No other cities specifically address water issues,” says Mead. With global and local battles over water rights, this impending policy could put Milwaukee at the leading edge.

“Fair, easy access to water is crucial to the economy…more people are becoming a part of the conversation in water conservation,” Mead says. “Hopefully this effort can lead the way.”

For more information on this project as it progresses, visit the Victory Garden Initiative online.

0 thoughts on “Urban Gardens lead the way for water policy in Milwaukee”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Glad to see cooperation and collaboration are in play to address these new issues. This kind of leadership is a perfect fit for Milwaukee’s established and ongoing role as a water industries center. Another research & curriculum opportunity, too, for UWM’s Water Institute.

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