This month, Martha Allen, Communications Coordinator for Sweet Water, sat down with Alyssa Schmitt, Sweet Water board member and Project Engineer at Stormwater Solutions Engineering in Milwaukee.
Allen: Let's start from the top: Are you originally from Milwaukee?
Schmitt: Yes, I’m from about an hour outside of the Milwaukee area but I only moved to the Milwaukee area about 8 years ago for school.
A: How do you feel that being originally from Wisconsin and the Milwaukee area helps you think about water issues differently?
S: I’ve lived in Milwaukee for about 8 years now, I went to school here and I’ve been here ever since. As I’ve become more familiar with how things work in this area, especially relating to water quality issues, it’s only increased my passion for my work and for my role on the board. Once you live in this area, it’s hard not to feel attached to our water. It’s such a vital part of everyday life. I drive by the lake on my way to the office. I look at the river from my office window and I’m surrounded by it every day. That means that it is hard not to see it as a constant and important part of life. Growing up in Wisconsin, and in the Milwaukee area, I’ve also been able see how it has changed over time and that makes me even more invested in the future of it.
A: How did you originally get involved with Sweet Water?
S: I got involved in Sweet Water through my position at Stormwater Solutions Engineering. I’ve been with Stormwater Solutions for a little over 2 years now and when Linda Reid took the position as Executive Director, she remembered that I had been interested in volunteering or working with Sweet Water in some way and she wanted someone with a focus on green infrastructure. She asked if I was interested – and of course I was because it felt like a natural progression to be working with both organizations at once and to have an opportunity to work on broader issues with Sweet Water.
A: How do you feel that being a young person in your field shapes your experience in engineering?
S: I think that because I’m young, I’m a little more naïve than some of the people who have been in the engineering field or water quality field for twenty years or more. The most obvious example of that for me was realizing the scale of time for a lot of the projects happening in our area. Changing things takes a long time and sometimes you won’t see the end result, and it can often take as long for something to fail as it would for it to succeed. Coming out of college it’s easy to have the opposite impression because you can write a paper or finish a project and you can feel this great sense of accomplishment, but often in professional water circles, things take decades to change at the very least. Things don’t happen overnight. Even in my short time working for Stormwater Solutions, I’ve seen projects start to make an impact but they require collaboration, insight, and hard work from a lot of talented people. I feel very fortunate to be young and have the opportunities to work on the projects that I do and as a young person, I feel like I’m lucky to be able to learn a lot right now.
A: What do you do besides being a Sweet Water board member? What kinds of projects are you working on?
S: I’m typically work on a lot of green infrastructure design such as bio-swales and porous pavement. And my role is not just designing these projects but also ensuring that they last for the long term. I work on maintenance issues and helping people get the most long-term use out of the projects. I also do things like storm-sewer design but I most enjoy working on green infrastructure design and the operations and maintenance for those projects.
A: How do you see green infrastructure developing over the past couple of years?
S: I would say the biggest shift that’s happening is a focus on maintenance and longevity of green infrastructure. Now that we’ve had a certain amount of time and experience installing these new systems, people are becoming more familiar with them, and we’re starting to have people come back with more maintenance questions. We’re working on learning and spreading the word about the best and most efficient ways to maintain green infrastructure systems. It’s been a big shift and it is still a big issue. Since GI is still relatively new, we’re working to get people familiarized with it and helping them realize that it’s not difficult to do the maintenance, it’s just a matter of familiarizing yourself with the process.
A: What’s your favorite part of your job?
S: What I like most about my job is actually seeing the projects that I’ve worked on be built. I also love knowing that something that I worked on, even if I just had a small role in it, is making a difference in my community. The more frequently we install little projects here and there, the greater the impact and the awareness of green infrastructure in people’s minds. It really feels like it matters and it also means so much to have it happening in a place I truly care about; a place I call home.
A: What’s your biggest point of pride about where you see Milwaukee’s water politics and water efforts today as opposed to when you first started out?
S: I think being on Sweet Water and learning about what everyone is doing in their own professional lives, I feel a huge sense of pride for our community. I love seeing what everyone is working on. It’s inspiring to me that everyone is working so hard because we all love the place where we live. It’s also exciting to see everyone so eager to work together and it feels so wonderful to be a part of this kind of collaboration that can be so effective. It also helps me see the bigger picture that I’m working toward because everyone shares their unique perspectives based on different experiences.
A: What is your favorite thing to do when you aren’t at work?
S: This may sound cheesy, but I do love spending any time I can out on the water. I love the summertime in Milwaukee and in Wisconsin in general. I go sailing on lake Michigan and waterskiing on inland lakes. We have a cabin up North that I love visiting when I can. So obviously, I love spending time on the water, and my love for our lakes has only gotten stronger as it’s shaped my career. Basically, anything I can do outdoors related to water is pretty perfect.