Archive for August, 2010

An Update on Water Issues

As most of you know, the use of water from hydrants has become a major topic of conversation in Milwaukee. Here’s a brief overview of what has been happening, and an update on what’s coming next.

Several months ago, the city announced a change in policy which would cut off access to water from fire hydrants for community gardens. Notice of the proposed change was given to Milwaukee County Cooperative Extension (MCCE) in December, 2009. MCCE has 12 rental gardens providing more than 50 acres for cultivation county-wide.

Our garden at Kilbourn Park also uses water from a city hydrant located at the corner of Booth and Garfield.

After a series of discussions between the city and MCCE, the deadline was set aside while gardeners in the community worked toward finding new strategies for water sources. The first step in that process was a meeting between gardeners and representatives of the city on July 14.

As word spread about the meeting, gardeners became upset at the prospect of losing access to water from fire hydrants. They called the alderpersons. They called the press. The compost, as it were, was hitting the fan.

The Riverwest Currents published a front page article about hydrant usage in the July issue, and quickly became a source for other news organizations that were picking up the story. First the Milwaukee Buzz, Milwaukee Magazine’s online publication; then the Journal Sentinel and WUWM brought out stories as the day of the meeting approached. According to the sign-in sheets, 124 people came to the meeting, held at Independence First.

Carrie Lewis of Milwaukee Water Works and Mark Rohlfing, the new Fire Chief addressed the meeting to present the reasons for the proposed policy change and answer questions. Ron Doetch, a specialist in “water harvesting” and urban agriculture also addressed the group about water strategies. Gretchen Mead served as meeting facilitator.

The next step was a small group process to gather ideas for long- and short-term water use strategies. The groups came up with an array of solutions to address the concerns of the city – everything from simply turning off the hydrants except for specific times to exotic techniques like in-ground cisterns to capture rainwater. After the meeting Carrie Lewis commented that she was amazed at the variety and ingenuity of the ideas, and that “there was nothing suggested that would not be acceptable to Water Works.”

With this auspicious start, the next step was to set up a Strategies Committee to begin working on short-term ideas to begin to wean community gardens off water from fire hydrants, or to otherwise address the issues presented by the city. That group is set to meet on Wednesday, August 11 at 6PM.

Second, the group identified a number of people to serve on a Policy Committee, to begin to create a water policy for the city as it relates to urban agriculture. That group held its first meeting on Wednesday, August 4.

Since the July 14 meeting, at least one self-appointed study group has been researching city water policies regarding community gardens and urban agriculture from around the country. This is a first step in creating a new water policy for Milwaukee.

The need for a new water use policy was brought into sharp focus by the torrential rains received in July, culminating in the July 22 flood. There has been much discussion among gardeners and others about the possible role that urban gardens and water harvesting and collecting strategies could have on mitigating further devastating water events like the ones our city has endured for the past two years.

Over the past two weeks, there has also been one hydrant used by gardeners shut off by the city. That hydrant, in the 3100 block of 9th Street, served a city-lot sized garden called the DMZ Garden. This week, after discussions among the gardeners, Milwaukee Water Works and Milwaukee Urban Gardens, the misunderstanding that caused the shut-off was cleared up, and the hydrant was turned back on.

The initial water hydrant announcement from the city was met with considerable anger from gardeners, and much of that anger remains. However, that is a lot of enthusiasm and hope as people take on the task of creating the government policies we want to serve our needs.

There will be a strategies meeting tonight at Independence First. That meeting is open to anyone who wishes to attend and help plan our next steps in creating alternative strategies to water from hydrants.

I am happy to represent the Kilbourn Park Gardens at this meeting since I plan to attend all the Strategies and Policy meetings – probably for the next year or so. However, I would encourage anyone and everyone who wishes to attend to come – we need all the help we can get to make this transition!

Jan Christensen

Water Strategies Group
Wednesday, August 11, 6PM
Independence First
540 S 1st Street


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