What Is Milwaukee Water Commons?
The recently-formed grassroots group, which looks to make sure all citizens benefit from Milwaukee's water resources, holds a fundraiser.
In his recent series in Urban Milwaukee, David Holmes argues that “Milwaukee’s urban revitalization as a whole has been linked in multiple ways to the restoration of its freshwater resources.”
The city has the advantage of a lakefront that has been only lightly developed and its distinctive, tri-furcated estuary in the form of the Milwaukee, Menomonee and Kinnickinnic rivers. These bodies are not prone to great flooding, making them ideal environmental corridors that will accommodate human interaction. Plus, he writes, we have spent tremendous sums improving our sewers and other riparian infrastructure, where other cities have not yet begun.
In short, it is time to reap the dividends of our great liquid assets.
A grassroots group called Milwaukee Water Commons, formed in 2013, believes the public should have a seat at the table when water policy issues are addressed. Defined as a “cross-city network that fosters connection, collaboration and broad community leadership on behalf of our waters,” the group held a fundraiser for 34 people at the riverfront home of Julilly Kohler on January 21st.
The hosts of the program were the two co-directors of Milwaukee Water Commons: Alexa Bradley, a founder of the Great Lakes Commons, to which this group is connected, of the Water Commons, and Ann Brummitt, who was previously involved in the Milwaukee River Work Group, a project that led to the preservation of 878 riverfront acres in the city of Milwaukee.
“Decisions about the care and responsibility for our waters must involve all of us,” the group announced in a flyer. The public has a stake because “water belongs to no one and cannot be owned.”
As the guests snacked on food catered by Amilinda‘s, Bradley and Brummitt gave a brief presentation, aided by a video by Jenny Plevin a program director at docUWM. Milwaukee Water Commons Artist-in-Residence Melanie Ariens had already greeted the guests at the door of the home, where one of her handmade prints — dated 2015 — was available to donors of $500 or more.
So, why the Water Commons?
Bradley stated her case simply in an address to the audience. “Milwaukee is a water hub. We must put stewardship and community at the center.”
“What would it mean to you to be a water city?” attendees were asked.
Kohler said “access to the riverbanks” would be of importance. The river used to be filled with swimming schools and fishing holes. [“Connections and Reconnections” has been a theme in Kohler’s community vision. See, for example, the Holton Marsupial Bridge.]
Becca Kranitz said she would be interested in water sculptures, and Anne Basting, founder of Time Slips (a non-profit that helps people with memory loss), said she would like to visit the theme of the perpetual cycle of water. Basting was there with her husband, documentary filmmaker Brad Lichtenstein
Tim Ehlinger, a UW-Milwaukee professor of biological sciences, said the city has to be dynamic to match the dynamic nature of water. “Everybody in Milwaukee has a connection to the water. Everybody has a personal story. What is the collective story?”
“We have the opportunity to become a national leader,” she suggested, with programs like the Water Commons. And, despite recent gains, “a lot more can be done,” she said. “The river needs work, the lake needs care. The Great Lakes renew at about 1 per cent a year,” she said, so things take time and need continual attention.
But what of the industrial, agricultural, commercial, residential and other uses of water? “Economic prosperity and sustainability are not mutually exclusive,” she said.
Introducing a yin-yang continuum, she said the “Water Hub is a great idea — but a water hub is economic. A Water Commons is more equitable.”
David Dragseth, the pastor of Lake Park Lutheran Church, was asked to reflect on the question of “Where did you meet water recently?”
“Well, I baptized three kids this week,” he joked, adding, “I skiied with a friend.” That experience caused him to reflect on the bounty of water. Amen.
Charlyn Moore, the director of Urban Underground brought her perspective. She is from the island of Jamaica, she told people, and has a slightly different take on water than do the customers of the Milwaukee Water Works and the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District.
“We were without indoor plumbing. We had to fill drums with water. Here, water is available freely, but people freely took advantage of a resource that literally other people die for.”