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Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2012

Sustainable Milwaukee

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Soon after his election in 2004, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett assembled a Green Team to study and recommend improvements regarding environmental sustainability, especially energy conservation and storm water management. Participation was wide open, with leadership from a steering committee of academics, environmentalists and business people including developers. One result was the creation in 2006 of the Office of Environmental Sustainability (OES) to oversee the wide-ranging efforts that have placed Milwaukee among the top 10 sustainable cities in the country. While other cities are currently forced to make improvements, Milwaukee—thanks to the mayor’s early initiatives—is providing some models.

“I don’t think most people realize we were a first mover,” said OES Director Matt Howard. “Tom Barrett is a true Milwaukeean in that he quietly accomplishes work. That’s the highest compliment I can pay, after 13 years of working in Washington, D.C., with the Department of Commerce, focusing on sustainable manufacturing issues. The mayor doesn’t talk about the great things he wants to do; he accomplishes them. The reason we rank among the top cities is that we cover a lot of the basics well, not just one or two items.”

So what puts Milwaukee among the top 10 sustainable cities?

Milwaukee’s comprehensive residential recycling program has increased the tonnage of recycled material, shortened the time between pickups and eliminated the need for residents to sort recyclables.

The much-awarded Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District is a national leader in storm water management. “MMSD and the city have gone from 50-60 overflow episodes each year to 2-3,” Howard said. “We want to get to zero.” Teamed with the Great Lakes Water Institute, the city of Milwaukee and Milwaukee County, the MMSD has reclaimed our Lake Michigan beaches through better storm water retention facilities and rain gardens that have added to their beauty. Our rivers have become very crucial assets.

Milwaukee is a global leader in urban agriculture, especially aquaponics, one of 24 cities on the planet named an IBM Smarter City for ordinances that foster urban gardening, beekeeping and chicken farming.

The Department of City Development (DCD) spearheaded the award-winning transformation of the Menomonee Valley from contaminated brownfields into a thriving eco-industrial area, joining the Hank Aaron State Trail and riverside amenities with buildings and manufacturing firms that meet high standards of sustainability.

Other examples include the Department of Public Works’ award-winning work to capture storm water through boulevard gardens; the 25,000 trees planted since 2005, producing $16 million in benefits to air pollution removal, storm water reduction, carbon storage and reduced residential energy costs; more than 8.6 acres of green roofs supported by MMSD, including at Central Library; and a 9% drop in carbon dioxide emissions. The city uses biodiesel fuel and, increasingly, natural gas and hybrid vehicles; the OES is installing vehicle recharging stations around the city. Many thousands of traffic lights have been retrofitted with LED lamps for a 90% reduction in energy use. Nearly $1 million was saved on the city’s energy bills, and the mayor’s goal of a 15% reduction of energy use by 2012 has been met for many buildings.

Indeed, energy efficiency is the simplest and fastest way to save money and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The OES oversees two signature programs, providing resources to individual homeowners, helping them to cut energy costs and improve buildings, and businesses, helping them to improve manufacturing, remain competitive and create jobs—all while minimizing the harm to the environment.

For home and commercial property owners, Milwaukee Energy Efficiency (Me2) is one of the most comprehensive programs in the nation. With federal stimulus dollars from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act used to leverage private capital, improvements are affordable. More than 1,000 homes have had energy audits and hundreds have completed upgrades since the program started in March 2011.

OES Manager Erick Shambarger walked us through the process. To begin, call (toll free) 1-877-399-1203 or visit www.smartenergypays.com and click “Sign Me Up.” A free, no-obligation energy advocate will become your guide. A Me2-certified and -subsidized energy consultant will test your building for possible problems in such areas as insulation, air leaks, windows, wiring or heating equipment, and help you set priorities and select from participating Me2 contractors whose work is inspected for quality and safety.

Grants of up to $3,000 are available to help you upgrade. A no-money-down, low-interest, 15-year loan from Summit Credit Union can cover the rest. No home equity or minimum credit score is required. In theory, the money you save on monthly energy costs will match or surpass your loan payment. It’s a smart use of federal stimulus dollars: Residents have increased disposable income from money saved by energy efficiencies; local contractors and construction workers gain work; and city residential properties gain in value. It is a win-win-win approach.

The second program is Economy, Energy, Environment (E3), which helps small- and medium-sized manufacturers implement cost-effective sustainable practices that reduce negative environmental impacts and save money. Eighteen firms have been served successfully since February 2011. They’ve expanded, developed new product lines and hired more employees. Visit www.milwaukee.gov/ME3 for information.

The mayor has assembled a new Green Team to expand the goals and initiatives from 2005. Chaired by Matt Howard, the 15-member community group is seeking public input through October to set priorities among such concerns as lower utility bills, clean air and water, transportation, public safety, community gardens, trash and recycling, healthy food, public health and climate change. You are encouraged to answer an interesting eight-question online survey at www.milwaukee.gov/GreenTeamSurvey regarding your own priorities, and to share ideas at a town hall meeting at the new Urban Ecology Center–Menomonee Valley Branch, 3700 W. Pierce St., at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 20.