Wilniesha Smith | Milwaukee, Wisconsin
My great-grandmother had a garden four houses away from ours. Every spring, she would take her hoses out of the basement and attach them all the way down the street. There were probably about 600 feet of hose and we had to make sure the hose connections were sealed so all of the water would get to the garden.
She would get up at 5:30 in the morning to garden before it got too hot. Watering the garden space needed to be done at a certain time of the day or you were going to waste water due to evaporation. Then the plants and the vegetation aren’t going to get enough of that water.
I was raised by my mother and great-grandmother. My great-grandmother had a ton of plants in the house, and she would always take tap water, bottle it, and then sit it in the window. She was born in Tennessee, and they lived off well water. She knew there was chlorine in our water, and this would dechlorinate the water. The city water was treated, and she knew that her plants didn’t respond well to treated water. We always had jugs of water because she had plants lining the windows in our living room and dining room. Every morning she would get up, open the curtains, and let the sunlight in for her plants.
My dad was a plumber and taught plumbing at Bradley Tech. I remember growing up in the city of Milwaukee and my dad working on projects switching pipes from lead to copper. Due to our water being treated, the chemicals in our water would leach from the lead pipes. Copper is less corrosive than lead piping, so it’s safer to use with our treated drinking water.
When my four kids were in school, both my husband and I decided it was time for a bit of a change, and we went back to school together. I was talking to my dad, and he said, ‘Well, there’s funding provided for people to go back to school for water careers. You’ve always been around water.’ So, I went back to school to study environmental health and water quality technology at Milwaukee Area Technical College which is what got me interested in water as a critical issue. I did an internship with Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District for four summers. During those summers I did community outreach on why we need to capture and conserve rainwater to protect Lake Michigan. I knew this is the career I needed to be in. We can’t do anything without clean water.
My job was education and outreach, and I gave people the full scoop. I talked with people about how they can help reduce some of the rainwater flowing into our sewer system when we have those heavy rain downpours. Heavy downpours can overwhelm the sewer system and cause flooding. If we can reduce how much water goes into our sewer systems, it would reduce treating water that doesn’t need to be clean. When there is a heavy rain, every downspout on a home can send 12 gallons of water a minute into the sewer system. There are things we can do such as disconnecting our downspouts, adding rain barrels, and adding in rain gardens with native plants to pull more rain into the ground.
It was during my first summer with MMSD that I worked with Reflo, an organization working towards sustainable water solutions in Milwaukee. The project was Cream City Farms, an acre and a half brownfield that was redeveloped and is now producing food. Brownfields are sites that were previously contaminated. This area was highly industrialized, so the soil was contaminated. The soil was removed, and two feet of fresh topsoil was brought in from a farm somewhere not too far from Milwaukee that was no longer being used for farming. Reflo helped design the area and install a 20,000-gallon underground cistern for rainwater harvesting. The day that I was introduced to Reflo I helped build the underground cistern. It took Reflo three days and about 100 volunteers to build it.
Now I am the intern and outreach coordinator at Reflo. Working at Reflo is meaningful work and fun. I think it is an important connector for Milwaukee. For example, there are a ton of schoolyards in the city that aren’t being really looked at and assessed correctly. Some schools have added green space, but they aren’t thinking of adding green infrastructure. Reflo can make the connection between the ability to capture water and reduce how much water goes into the sewer system, and also having a green space for students to play. We’re connecting the public with the private sectors and connecting schools with resources. Schools and school districts have a lot of policies and Reflo helps navigate those systems to actually get green schoolyard projects approved and funded.
I have many early memories having to do with water. My grandma lining up the water for her plants, stretching the garden house down the block, and my dad switching out lead pipes for copper ones. Now I work with Reflo on greening schoolyards reducing water runoff. I didn’t realize it until I was older that all of those people have instilled an appreciation of water in me.
Wilniesha’s story was produced by Jade Iseri-Ramos as part of our series on Wisconsin’s water future.
This series was funded by the ‘Beyond the Headlines’ initiative and funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Reflo works with the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District and other partners at five Milwaukee-area schools per year in an intensive, collaborative process to design greener, healthier schoolyards. Check out his video to learn more about this Milwaukee’s schoolyard redevelopment process.
Beyond the Headlines (BTH) is a program of Wisconsin Humanities that brings together members of the Wisconsin media and the public to examine how we can obtain information that we need and trust in order to meet our communities’ challenges. BTH has a statewide Wisconsin Water Future project. You can learn about it here
Cream City Farms Cistern: Reflo worked with myriad partners to support the design and construction of a 40,000-gallon underground cistern at Cream City Farms in the middle of Milwaukee. You can learn more about Reflo here.