By. Justin Hegarty, P.E., LEED A.P., Executive Director of Reflo – Sustainable Water Solutions, Milwaukee, Wisconsin


In Milwaukee, everyone talks about water.  Now even our schools are getting in on the conversation.  It seemed like the Milwaukee-area was a bit behind the curve when compared to other larger cities with meaningful green schools initiatives, but recently a budding green schools movement, focused on water sustainability, has started to gain momentum.  Over the past two years, green school advocates have voluntarily organized a regional resource sharing network; a green schools conference; and a tour to engage new stakeholders, as well as worked to focus regional stormwater and water resource funding towards greening area schools for the benefit of our children, community, and environment.


Milwaukee has a strong connection to its water history and, like most cities, grew because of its rich water resources.  The city has three large river watersheds with contributions from both rural and urban areas, draining towards the downtown harbor on Lake Michigan.  In 1993, Milwaukee had the largest waterborne disease outbreak in U.S. history with over 400,000 residents falling ill due to poor rural watershed management and drinking water infrastructure failures.  Furthermore, a portion of Milwaukee’s urban watersheds contain “combined sewers” where urban stormwater runoff is conveyed in the same sewer system as sanitary water.  The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District has invested heavily in managing the combined sewer area; however, during intense rain events (maybe 0-5 a year), the sewer system can become overloaded and result in “combined sewer overflows” which deposit untreated wastewater into our rivers and lake.  In light of these events, regional water authorities have determined that one of the most favorable ways to better manage our shared water resources and mitigate possible future environmental impacts is by managing rainwater where it falls, through “green infrastructure.”


Green infrastructure is especially relevant to schools in the Milwaukee-area.  Many of the approximately 300 school properties are covered in asphalt, stemming from a determination in the 1960s and 1970s that asphalt was easier and cheaper to maintain than grass.  Outside of the social impact of paving playgrounds, these hard surfaces result in increased stormwater runoff which causes area flooding, basement backups, and combined sewer overflows.  In summary, many Milwaukee-area school properties, that are publicly owned and/or supported, contribute to serious public and environmental health issues with high regional economic costs.  


In 2014, the nonprofit Reflo began organizing around the concept of greening our schools with specific emphasis on addressing the significant water resource challenges in the region.  What we now call the Green Schools Consortium of Milwaukee (GSCM) is comprised of local teachers, engineers, artists, regional agencies, foundations, and interested community members all focused on sharing resources and connecting schools with the support they need to implement meaningful green initiatives that are educational and improve the health of our local watersheds.


Reflo started working with schools in 2013 to collaboratively design creative and meaningful green infrastructure at schools that incorporated student, teacher, and community input.  The approach taken incorporated many exciting ideas and resulted in some really energized planning meetings and outreach activities.  The teachers at one school organized a community outreach day with Milwaukee Mayor Barrett in attendance, where they raised over $25,000 in donations and in-kind support for their green initiatives.  This alone was exciting, but what really motivated Reflo to begin organizing the consortium can be summarized in the following picture, which depicts the scale of asphalt used at local schools and the social and environmental impacts it has.


Source: Justin Hegarty

(source: Justin Hegarty)


In the process of documenting lessons learned while working with these schools, fundamental questions arose: What other green school projects are there in the Milwaukee-area and how were they completed?  With that, the concept for a guidebook was inspired and Reflo, the Fund for Lake Michigan, and several schools and community organizations set on a two-year path that ultimately resulted in the recently released, “Green Infrastructure for Milwaukee-Area Schools – a Resource Replication Guide – Spring 2016.”  The guidebook provides visual examples of stormwater related green infrastructure at schools, local case studies, explanations of permitting and approvals needed, potential curriculum connections, how to develop an impact plan, available funding opportunities, and other resources available to Milwaukee-area schools.


With the consortium’s development of the guidebook underway, the group began thinking about how they could further support schools.  Under Reflo’s direction, the group collaboratively applied for and was awarded funding from the Fund for Lake Michigan – the first of hopefully many, well organized, capacity building investments in water sustainability at Milwaukee-area schools.  Among other objectives, the funding provided strategic green infrastructure conceptual design and green team support for three area schools.  The enhanced on-the-ground design support was needed to develop impactful green school projects that were supported by school staff, improved the schools’ social and environmental impacts, and positioned the schools to obtain outside funding.  In addition, the schools underwent preliminary water and energy audits where plumbers and engineers toured the schools with teachers and students to assess the feasibility of replacing inefficient energy and water fixtures.


From there, the Fund for Lake Michigan supported Milwaukee’s first green school tour for potential funders, governmental agencies, and community organizations, setting the stage for future engagement and jumpstarting outside interest in the movement.  This effort grew into the Milwaukee-area’s 1st Annual Green Schools Conference, held in June 2016 at Highland Community School.  The conference was hosted by a school with multiple examples of stormwater-related green infrastructure that attendees could explore first hand.  The event was a huge success with over 160 people in attendance.  The conference netted new corporate, foundation, and governmental sponsorships and provided an opportunity for many area schools and resource providers to share their story and further connect with others who could support their school projects in new and exciting ways.


The GSCM’s emphasis on water and infrastructure stemmed from regional conversations focused on sustainable water management.  The strategic emphasis on water not only provided an opportunity for the local green schools movement to access early funding opportunities, but also opened the door for schools to increasingly play a vital role in regional social and environmental issues.  Not only could meaningful green infrastructure projects be implemented at school grounds, but students, teachers, parents, and the surrounding community could become engaged in the water conversation that is critical to our region’s future success.

Mapped in the above picture are Milwaukee’s three major river watersheds as they drain toward Lake Michigan. Also depicted as white and blue placemarkers are a fraction of the hundreds of schools in the region. source: Justin Hegarty

(Mapped in the above picture are Milwaukee’s three major river watersheds as they drain toward Lake Michigan. Also depicted as white and blue placemarkers are a fraction of the hundreds of schools in the region. source: Justin Hegarty)


About the Author

Justin Hegarty, P.E., LEED A.P., Executive Director of the nonprofit Reflo in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, has over 14 years of engineering experience including managing several diverse teams and water resource projects.  He co-founded Reflo to work with community stakeholders in the Milwaukee-area to design and build creative and meaningful green infrastructure.  Shortly after organizing the nonprofit it became evident that a strong local movement was necessary to advance green schools initiatives in the area, and Reflo began organizing the Green Schools Consortium of Milwaukee.  Reflo has supported many exciting community-based green infrastructure initiatives including rainwater harvesting for urban agriculture, organizing and funding the first Green Schools Conference in Milwaukee, developing an interactive app to explore local water projects, and organizing a mapping user’s group to share community data with the intent of increasing communication and resource sharing across organizations.