February 22, 2016|By David Grusznski| Water

The Conservation Fund continues to prove that conservation comes in many forms, and often from unexpected sources or partnerships. Whether it’s a corporate, governmental, or land trust partner, we find ways to intersect conservation with communities. Here in the greater Milwaukee area, the Fund teamed up with the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) nearly 15 years ago to launch the Greenseams® Program—an innovative flood management program designed to improve the region’s resiliency and improve public green space access through strategic land conservation.

Devastating rainstorms in the late 1990s resulted in millions of dollars in property damage throughout the Milwaukee metro area. In response, the Greenseams program was conceived to help prevent that kind of devastation from happening again in this growing region, where more than one million people live and work. The City of Milwaukee and the surrounding stormwater infrastructure of MMSD are at the bottom of a 698 square mile funnel known as the Milwaukee River Watershed. In this funnel, whatever occurs in the upper reaches of the watershed will ultimately impact conditions where the watershed terminates, and in this case that’s Lake Michigan. This means excess nutrients, pollutants, and excessive rainwater accumulate throughout the landscape and concentrate at the end of the funnel. And the Milwaukee River is only one watershed in the Greater Milwaukee Area—there’s also the Kinnickinnic, Oak Creek, Menomonee, and a portion of the Root River Watershed. 

DavidG Blog 5The Milwaukee River Watershed covers 698 square miles and funnels water into the Milwaukee metropolitan area.

While the northern reaches of these watersheds are rural areas comprised of farmland, woodlands and wetlands, as you move south urbanization and impervious surface become more prevalent, and by the time you reach Milwaukee County the land is nearly fully developed. As more houses, pavement and concrete overtake and replace absorbent wetlands in these watersheds, major storms can cause significant floods, and overflowing sewer systems inundate homes with filthy water. Greenseams works to reduce flooding and the effects of polluted stormwater flowing into waterways during major storms by preserving land that provides natural stormwater retention. Conserving wetlands, forests, and prairies reduces the flood risk to homes and businesses because these lands act as natural sponges that absorb rainwater and snowmelt, unlike concrete and other impervious surfaces. 

DavidG Blog 3Stoney Creek flowing through a recent 35-acre Greenseams purchase. Photo by Ivan LaBianca.

Greenseams purchases undeveloped parcels from willing landowners to protect wetlands, stream corridors and other natural habitat. Greenseams also acquires conservation and farmland easements from landowners interested in retaining ownership of their land while preserving it for future generations. Once a property is preserved, we look for opportunities to restore the landscape to a more native condition, such as prairie cover, wetlands, or woodlands. In terms of farmland easements, we look for opportunities to install farmland conservation practices that will help build soil health, which results in improved surface water quality.

On July 21, 2015 Greenseams celebrated the completion of our 100th project and the Program’s success in protecting more than 3,100 acres of flood-prone land in 28 communities in greater Milwaukee. More than 110,000 trees have been planted and hundreds of acres of prairie restored. The Greenseams Program has been very successful at securing outside funds to offset MMSD’s costs. We’ve been able to match MMSD’s allocated budget by 40% through various grants, which has allowed us to stretch our limited funds to protect more land. 

DavidG Blog 4A site benefiting from prairie restoration by the United States Fish and Wildlife Services and Greenseams. Photo by David Grusznski. 

Partnerships are vital to the past and future success of the Greenseams Program. One of the more successful partnerships we have is working with the local land trusts. We strategically look to see where our program and priority sites overlap. This allows both entities to leverage staff time, expertise, funding, and other resources all with the goal of preserving more sites. This type of partnership has also been successful with the 30+ local units of government we work with and with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Often times it takes more than one entity coming together to preserve a site.

In addition to the preservation of a property, Greenseams also looks for opportunities to restore properties back to a more natural ecosystem. Greenseams restorations are focused on keeping more water and nutrients on the land, which is done by converting properties over to prairie, wetlands, and forest. Prior converted wetlands are brought back to life, soil is stabilized, and wildlife habitat is created. Since 2003, one of Greenseams’ key restoration partners has been the US Fish and Wildlife’s Partners for Wildlife Program. Through this partnership we’ve been able to restore 14 properties covering more than 600 acres. Within the next six months, we are planning on restoring another 6 properties for an additional 100 acres of native prairie. 

DavidG Blog 2David Grusznski and Greenseams Project Coordinator Angie Doucette at the Big Muskego Wildlife Area. Photo by Ivan LaBianca.

It has been gratifying to be part of a project that provides Milwaukee residents and visitors with the experience of being outdoors in natural settings, while creating a sense of community and improving public health and happiness. Most Greenseams sites are open to the public for outdoor recreation giving people places to hike, bike, bird watch or just enjoy nature minutes from downtown Milwaukee.

Even though the Program has been active for 15 years, we continue to create new partnerships with local land trusts, municipalities, and other regional organizations, which are vital to the future success of our Program. The future of the Greenseams Program looks bright, thanks to the long-term commitment of MMSD and The Conservation Fund to healthier watersheds in the Greater Milwaukee Region.