February 25, 2020

Milwaukee’s Working Soils® Program Protects Floodplain and Creates New Model for Community Conservation

MILWAUKEE — In February, The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (The District), in partnership with The Conservation Fund, purchased a conservation easement on 50 acres of private farmland in Ozaukee County, through their Working Soils® Program. Working Soils® is part of the District’s strategic efforts to promote floodplain protection throughout the Milwaukee River watershed. The Milwaukee River watershed features productive, nutrient-rich hydric soils that serve as a sponge to filter, stage and store stormwater during and after heavy rains. The District’s Working Soils® program coordinates with landowners to acquire agriculture easements on priority agricultural land to mitigate future flooding risk and improve water quality throughout the floodplain.

The newly protected land is part of a project named Making Allies for Healthier Communities, an initiative that connects local farmers to land for growing and selling fresh food in the Milwaukee area, with a focus on opportunities for underserved, immigrant and beginning farmers. The Making Allies partners include MMSD, The Conservation Fund, Fondy Food Center, Land Trust Alliance, the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust, and the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service. The initiative is designed to create a new model for community conservation that improves lives and communities, while connecting and deepening support land and freshwater resources by engaging new and diverse audiences.

“This farm is where the vision of the Making Allies partnership meets reality. We can protect farmland, protect water, support the local farm economy, and help keep fresh and healthy produce in continuous supply for the city of Milwaukee – all on the same piece of land,” said David Grusznski, Program Director for The Conservation Fund.

In addition to keeping the site available for farming and natural stormwater management, the farmland provides local Hmong farmers in the community with long-term farming and land ownership opportunities. Currently, many Hmong farmers are renting farmland 60 miles from their homes and markets. The Making Allies farm provides productive and affordable farmland with a much shorter distance to the Fondy Farmers Market in north Milwaukee. Through a lease-to-own arrangement, the Hmong farmers will be able to purchase the farm over time. Securing long-term land ownership will allow farmers to grow crops that take longer to cultivate, including blackberries and certain fruit trees, which better prevent soil erosion and run-off.

The funding to purchase the farmland conservation easement came in part through a grant from The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). In 2016, NRCS awarded the District and partners over one million dollars through its Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) to implement conservation easements and improved management on agricultural lands. The RCPP is providing leveraged funds to the District’s Working Soils® program for this and many other farmland conservation easement projects in the Milwaukee River watershed.

“NRCS is pleased to partner with the District’s Working Soils® program. NRCS’s RCPP award is supporting a diverse and effective partnership to address water quality issues in the Milwaukee area, bringing together agricultural producers, agribusinesses, state and local governments, and land trusts to help mitigate future flooding, improve water quality, and implement soil health management systems.”  said Angela Biggs, NRCS Wisconsin State Conservationist.

RCPP was reauthorized by the U.S. Congress in the 2018 Farm Bill, including Wisconsin’s U.S. Congressional delegation representing Ozaukee County: U.S. Senator Ron Johnson, U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin, U.S. Representative Gwen Moore, and U.S. Representative Glenn Grothman.

“I was proud to support the USDA’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program in the last Farm Bill because investing in floodplain protection efforts improves our water quality, reduces flooding in our communities, and supports the good work our farmers do each day to keep soil healthy and water clean,” said Senator Baldwin. “The strong partnership between MMSD and The Conservation Fund is a great example of the community collaboration that is possible in addressing water quality issues throughout Wisconsin. This new Working Soils® conservation effort will protect our lands, strengthen our environment and economy, and expand access to healthy foods for Milwaukee families and residents.”

Across the United States, three acres of farmland are lost every minute and Wisconsin is leading the country in farm bankruptcies in 2019. Conservation easements ensure that private farmland can remain in agricultural use and cannot be subdivided into smaller parcels.  The purchase of farm conservation easements supports Wisconsin’ agricultural economy.

Since 2001, the District’s Greenseams® program has permanently protected over 4,300 acres of key lands as part of its regional flood management efforts in the Milwaukee River Basin floodplain. The Working Soils® agricultural easements compliments the existing Greenseams® program by protecting privately owned land on and adjacent to wetlands. These programs help to implement regional open space preservation plans and protect priority natural areas. Priority areas are often adjacent to or along surface water streams and tributaries, and together create protected floodplain corridors. These corridors help to reduce the risk of flood related property damage, erosion of streambanks and provide wildlife habitat.

About Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District – Working Soils® Program
The District is a regional government agency that provides water reclamation and flood management services for about 1.1 million people in 28 communities in the Greater Milwaukee Area. The District is highly regarded nationally as a leader in wastewater treatment, flood management and green infrastructure. The District’s Greenseams® and Working Soils® programs have protected over 4,300 acres of land to support its billions of dollars of investments in urban stormwater, wastewater and watercourse infrastructure management.

About The Conservation Fund
At The Conservation Fund, we make conservation work for America. By creating solutions that make environmental and economic sense, we are redefining conservation to demonstrate its essential role in our future prosperity. Top-ranked for efficiency and effectiveness, we have worked in all 50 states since 1985 to protect more than 8 million acres of land. www.conservationfund.org

About the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Services and the Regional Conservation Partnership Program
The USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service provides financial and technical assistance to agricultural landowners to conserve natural resources through conservation easements and conservation practices. The Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) provides conservation assistance to landowners and supports collaborative projects that improve soil quality, water quality/quantity, wildlife habitat and other natural resource values.

Emy Brawley, The Conservation Fund, 303-669-0390, ebrawley@conservationfund.org
Karen Nenahlo, The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, 414-225-2276, knenahlo@mmsd.com