By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Mar 14, 2006 at 5:34 AM

As last week's deluge of rain reminded us, spring and its showers are not far away and that means Milwaukee's ongoing sewer overflow issues will likely return. Although you might feel powerless to change the situation, every Milwaukee area homeowner can do something to alleviate the problem.

One simple solution is to divert some of the water that drains into the sewer system into a rain barrel.

"Rain barrels are very very cool and the Housing Authority has used then in a cooperative arrangement with MMSD where we've put a couple hundred of these in place at scattered site at public housing units and the residents use that water to water their lawns or vegetable gardens," says Department of City Development Commissioner Rocky Marcoux. The Milwaukee Communuity Service Corps painted them and did the installation.

"In a real way it allows the average citizen to say they've impacted the situation. The less water we send to Jones Island allows us more capacity to treat the real sewage. It's an absolutely great system. It's a good way to get the average citizen involved in improving water quality."

The barrels are available from many places, but in Milwaukee two good sources are Keep Greater Milwaukee Beautiful (KGMB) and the Metropolitan Milwaukee Sewerage District (MMSD).

"The rain barrels are just one of the solutions to sewer overflow," says Erin Kanuckel, program specialist for KGMB, a private, non-profit organization founded in 1983 to, according to its mission statement, "create sustainable communities through clean, healthy, and beautiful neighborhoods for generations to come."

Residents purchase the barrel, which KGMB sells for $35, and connect it to one of their downspouts, allowing that water that would normally go into the storm sewers to instead be channeled into the barrel. A spout at the bottom allows homeowners to connect a hose and use the water to irrigate gardens and lawns. A long overflow hose at the top allows extra water to drain off at a safe distance from the home.

The barrels are covered to keep out mosquitoes and other insects.

"There has been (demand for the barrels)," says Kanuckel, "Especially because the City of Milwaukee is looking for alternative ways to deal with the overflow and because it allows residents to be part of the solution."

According to the MMSD Web site, the district has sold nearly 2,500 barrels to date.

Kanuckel says that from September to December 2005, KGMB sold 35 barrels and it is looking to get the word out to increase those numbers.

"We would definitely like to boost the sales of the rain barrel and we're offering installation workshops at the Milwaukee Public Market," Kanuckel says, adding that the durable barrels - recycled from pickle barrels -- are easily installed.

"The quality is really good. We're really proud of the quality control. You need to disconnect the downspout, but we give (buyers) an installation tip sheet. We're trying to have lots of workshops here at KGMB (1313 W. Mount Vernon Ave.), at the Mitchell Domes and at the Public Market. In fall we hope to collaborate with Fondy food market on workshops for the barrels and composting."

KGMB hosts four workshops at the Public Market in the Third Ward during the spring/summer season. The next one is slated for Tuesday, April 18.

Although many people wonder how their barrel can affect a system the size of Milwaukee's, Marcoux says that homeowners can add more than one barrel and even if they opt for one, every little bit of rain water that stays out of the city's storm sewers helps.

"You can run the barrels in series which provides even more storage opportunity if you want to save up water for irrigation and really not any water to the (city) system," he says.

"You start adding all up, (even installing a single barrel) makes a big difference over the long haul. It essentially is adding capacity to the system. Because we're diverting water that would normally have to be processed."

Information on purchasing 50-55-gallon rain barrels from KGMB is on the group's Web site, kgmb.org, which also has information on other green initiatives in Milwaukee.

MMSD's approximately 55-gallon barrels (which began their lives as cucumber storage barrels) sell for $23 and may be ordered via its Web site, mmsd.com/rainbarrel/what.cfm.

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.