Bay View Resident Adopts a Storm Drain Grate and So Can You

October 2, 2018

By Sheila Julson

Joe Hrdina, who lives on the east end of East Lincoln Avenue, was inspired to adopt two storm drains on his street. He has been maintaining the grates that cover them since August of this year so that rainwater will be able to flow into the sewer system instead of flooding the street. PHOTO Tom Grimm

Program aims to help divert pollution from our rivers and lakes

Bay View resident Joe Hrdina has always been environmentally conscious. When he stumbled across the Adopt-A-Storm Drain program through Respect Our Waters, he was immediately on board.

Adopt-A-Storm Drain is a pilot program launched last year by Respect Our Waters. The program encourages people to take a pledge to keep a storm drain clear from debris—trash, leaves, and grass clippings—before and after a rainfall and snowmelt.

Respect Our Waters is an educational program of the Southeastern Wisconsin Watersheds Trust. Also known as Sweet Water, it is a 501(c) 3 nonprofit organization dedicated to restoring improving the water quality of local lakes and rivers.

Hrdina found the Adopt-A-Storm Drain program during a search to discover the meaning of a painting of a fish that he’s observed next to some storm drain grates such as the one near the Costco in New Berlin.

He discovered the role of the “fish portrait” is to remind people that anything that goes down drains eventually ends up in Lake Michigan.

“I found the Respect Our Waters site, and a lot of the information on there was new to me. I was surprised by how much of an impact stormwater has on our local waterways,” Hrdina said.  

The site informs visitors that “rain or melting snow washes soil, litter, pet waste, fertilizer, and lawn clippings off the pavement and into your storm drain. When the storm drain (water) empties into lakes and streams, these materials become pollutants that can kill fish, close beaches, and increase weed and algae growth.”

Hrdina, who lives on the east end of East Lincoln Avenue, was inspired to adopt two storm drains. He has been maintaining the grates that cover them since August of this year.

“One is where I park, and the other one is right in front of my house. When I leave for work in the morning, I can look at both of them and see if they need to be cleaned out,” he said. “If I know a big storm is coming, I’ll go out there in advance and make sure they are clear.”

As one who doesn’t mind going above and beyond, Hrdina will often clean his adopted storm drains, but also the gutters  on his street between his home and the Bay View Dog Park on E. Lincoln Ave. and S. Bay St.

“When you adopt a storm drain, you’re essentially pledging to keep [the grate] clear from debris. I take it a step further and clear all the litter because I know that when it rains, there’s a good chance it will flow down the gutter and end up by the drain,” he said.

Hrdina and his girlfriend occasionally foster dogs. When they take them for walks, he’ll take a bag along to pick up trash. He said leaves and grass clippings also clog storm drains, causing stormwater to pool. He compared clearing leaves away from drains to pulling a plug from a bathtub; once clear, the water flows properly. Through his research, Hrdina learned that when leaves are left in water and start to decompose, they release phosphorus, similar to what is found in fertilizer, which encourages harmful algae bloom.

Hrdina receives text messages when heavy rainfall is expected that might force the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) to release excess water and raw sewage. When MMSD’s deep tunnel system is filled to capacity, it is forced to release the excess into local waterways and into Lake Michigan.

Heavy rainfall, Hrdina said, is a time when residents should wait for storms to pass before running a dishwasher or taking a shower to prevent adding even more water to the system.

“There are a lot of drains that need attention and it’s hard not to stop at each one. It could be a full-time job. While visiting my mom on the East Side last Sunday, I cleared out a drain on Farwell by Whole Foods. The drains I cleared yesterday were very clogged with leaves,” Hrdina said. “It really helps if people bag up yard waste rather than blow it into the road.”

And what happens if those drains aren’t cleared? 

Earlier this summer, Hrdina observed that the stretch of East Lincoln Avenue that borders the Bay View dog park was flooded. “The dog park flooded yesterday morning because the drains were blocked,” Hrdina said. “Later I saw city workers in the area and imagine that they cleared the blockage.”

Hrdina saw first hand how his volunteer work makes a difference when there is heavy prolonged rainfall. “I cleared about 15 drains from Woodward Avenue to Bay Street on Lincoln. That was during the recent series of torrential storms and that dog park area did not flood that time.”

Hrdina said he’s seen two of his neighbors also clear storm drains, but he’s not sure if they are affiliated with Adopt-A-Strom Drain or if they just do it on their own.

He estimates he’s picked up about six grocery store bags of trash since he’s been part of Adopt-A-Strom Drain. “It’s important for people to be part of their communities in some way,” he said. “Whether people know about it or not, every little bit helps. It can have a big impact if we work together to make Bay View a better place.”

Jake Fincher, stormwater program manager for Respect Our Waters, said they are gauging the public’s interest in participating in a program like Adopt-A-Storm Drain. Fincher estimates that in the year since the program started, about 10 drains in the South Shore region (Bay View, St. Francis, Cudahy, and South Milwaukee) were adopted.

Interested participants can sign-up on the Respect Our Waters website by clicking on the Adopt-A-Strom Drain tab. “Privacy is our number one concern. We don’t give out anybody’s exact information; we just mark locations on our map so people can see where in the Milwaukee area storm drains have been adopted,” Fincher said.

He added that years of urban development have completely changed the natural way that water flows, leading to serious problems like flooding and pollutants in rivers and lakes. Respect Our Waters helps 37 different municipalities throughout southeast Wisconsin raise awareness about stormwater pollution prevention.

“Everybody wants cleaner lakes and cleaner water. But what we don’t realize is that [when it rains, there] is a massive amount of water, picking up a massive amount of pollutants, going down these storm drains, which by design, were meant to be invisible,” he said. “Nobody is outside during a storm looking at where stormwater is going. But the fact is that water is going down these storm drains that lead to our water, and we have to help take responsibility.”

For more information about Adopt-A-Strom Drain and tips on keeping water cleaner:

To keep track of how full the deep tunnels are during rainstorms:

Mulch, Compost, or Bag Your Leaves
Advice from Respect Our Waters

Autumn leaves making their way to our water doesn’t sound like it could be a bad thing, right? Leaves are biodegradable, meaning they naturally break down and return nutrients to their surroundings. However, we have altered the earth’s surface tremendously and it has changed the way that leaves and their nutrients interact with (and affect) the quality of our water.

Our streets act like artificial streams during rain events and transport leaves to the storm drains that then collect in our storm sewers.

Normally, when leaves fall, they decompose and release nutrients into the soil. When leaves find their way into our streets and are transported into our sewers, there is no soil to absorb the excess nutrients. Then our storm sewers become a place where overwhelming amounts of nutrients like phosphorus are released directly into our rivers and lakes, untreated.

This excess phosphorus and organic material will help feed unwanted algae growth in lakes and rivers the following spring and summer, which reduces the amount of oxygen available to native aquatic species. Additionally, there is the possibility that the algae can release toxins that are harmful to plants, mammals, amphibians, fish, and humans!

To prevent these negative effects, we have a few options:

Mulch your lawn or garden.
Whole or shredded leaves can be left on your lawn and garden! Not only will your lawn and garden absorb the nutrients, the leaves will help protect against soil erosion, prevent weeds from sprouting, and act as a protective layer of insulation for perennials in your garden. 
Put leaves in a compost pile.
Take advantage of the breakdown processes, capture the extra nutrients, and use them as a natural fertilizer for your lawn and/or garden.

Check with your municipality to see if its neighborhood services will pick up leaves for you!


We All Want Clean Rivers and Lakes
Here’s How You Can Help

Milwaukee and Southproperly—not in storm sewers or drains. 

If your community does not already have a program for collecting household hazardous wastes, ask your local government to establish one. 

• Clean up spilled brake fluid, oil, grease, and antifreeze. Do not hose them into the street where they can eventually reach local streams and lakes.

• Control soil erosion on your property by planting ground cover and stabilizing erosion-prone areas.

• Purchase household detergents and cleaners that are low in  Shore residents can actively help clean up the area’s creeks, rivers, and lakes by reducing their own contribution to nonpoint source pollution (NPS). According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “NPS pollution is caused by rainfall or snowmelt moving over and through the surface. As the runoff moves, it picks up and carries away natural and human-made pollutants, finally depositing them into lakes, rivers, wetlands, coastal waters, and ground waters.

Here’s what you can do.

• Keep litter, pet wastes, leaves, and debris out of street gutters and storm drains—these outlets drain directly to lakes, streams, rivers, and wetlands.

• Apply lawn and garden chemicals sparingly and according to directions.

• Dispose of used oil, antifreeze, paints, and other household chemicals phosphorous to reduce the amount of nutrients 

discharged into our lakes, streams and coastal waters.

Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Milwaukee Residents’ Hazardous Waste Disposal Options

City of Milwaukee residents can dispose of hazardous household wastes and other material at the Lincoln Avenue Drop Off Center provided by the Department of Public Works on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays (except holidays). Note: You must provide proof of residence before you will be allowed to enter the facility. The center is located at 3879 W. Lincoln Ave.

What Materials Will Be Accepted

Garage & Workshop

Artist’s paints and media
Auto body repair products
Automobile oil
Battery acid
Brake fluid
Car wax, solvent-based
Contact cement
Deck strippers (wood bleach, sealers and preservatives)
Driveway sealer
Fiberglass epoxy
Fluorescent light bulbs
Gasoline/oil mixtures
Gasoline and other fuels
Glue, solvent-based
Glue, water-based
Joint compound
Latex paint
Lighter fluid
Non-automotive oils
Oil filters
Oil-based paint
Paint thinner
Paint stripper
Parts cleaner
Photographic chemicals
Roofing tar
Rust remover
Transmission fluid
Wood filler
Wood preservative

Kitchen & Bathroom
Cleaners, solvent-based

Floor care products
Hair remover
Nail polish
Nail polish remover
Oven cleaner

Home & Garden
Aerosol cans, full

Batteries (button & rechargeable)
Dry cleaning solvent
Fertilizer (with pesticides)
Furniture polish
Metal polish, solvent-based
Insect spray
Lamp Oil
Light ballasts
Pool chemicals
Rat poison
Shoe polish
Spot remover
Stump remover
Weed killer

What Will Not Be Accepted
Compressed gas cylinders
Car batteries
Clothes dryers
Containers larger than 15 gallons
Medical Wastes
Prescription drugs
Propane cylinder
Tires of any type
Washing machines
Radioactive wastes




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