Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District
Friends of Milwaukee's Rivers
Milwaukee, located on the western edge of Lake Michigan, is a
notorious case study for wastewater management. This is due to two factors:
first, the outbreak of cryptosporidiosis in 1993 that sickened hundreds of
thousands and killed up to 100 people, an event which also put the health risks
of wastewater mismanagement firmly into the psyche of the American public. The
second factor is the sharp reduction in combined sewer overflows the city saw
in the year following this outbreak upon completion of the Deep Tunnel project,
a $3 billion project which was expected to virtually eliminate dumping (MMSD).
The city of Milwaukee became a
leader in reduction of number of
CSOs, from 50-80 overflow events per year before construction of the Deep
Tunnel down to an average of 2.5 after construction (MMSD).
Just before completion of the Deep Tunnel project, Milwaukee made water
contamination history when the city's drinking water became
contaminated with Cryptosporidium, a parasite that passed through the
filtration system of the city's water treatment plants. At least
400,000 residents and visitors of Milwaukee became very sick, and about
100 people died from the illness. Cryptosporidium levels have been
proven to be significantly higher after sewer overflows, whether in the
form of CSOs or SSOs (WI-DNR). Milwaukee's practice of dumping sewage
into Lake Michigan and then using the lake as its primary drinking
water source is an obvious cause of this outbreak. Nonetheless, the
Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District denies any correlation between
sewer overflows and the cryptosporidium outbreak. Citizens of Milwaukee
and the surrounding communities, however, know the truth. They have
seen the evidence of these overflows and the warning signs posted on
their beaches whenever an overflow even occurs.
Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) is responsible for the city’s sewerage
projects from wastewater treatment to flood management. The MMSD is “a regional
government agency providing…services for 28 communities” for a total of “1.1
million people in a 420 square mile service area” (MMSD). The MMSD also has
other responsibilities, such as doing water quality research, household
hazardous waste collection, mercury collection, and industrial waste monitoring
(MMSD). Their stated mission is “to cost-effectively protect
public health and the environment, prevent pollution and enhance the quality of
area waterways” (MMSD). These are, and should be, the basic goals of any
sewerage district authority. It is a big job in the industrial metropolis of Milwaukee.
The MMSD owns and operates two
wastewater treatment facilities in Milwaukee: The
Jones Island treatment plant and the South Shore
treatment plant. These two plants manage all of the wastewater from the 420
square mile service area of the MMSD (MMSD). At the Jones Island
plant, biosolids (or solid sewage wastes) are converted into an organic
fertilizer called “Milorganite” (MMSD). This is an effective way to reuse the
otherwise useless waste, as well as being a healthy way to reintroduce sewage
wastes into the environment. The South Shore
plant, on the other hand, uses its biosolids to create methane gas, which is in
turn used to produce electricity to power the plant (MMSD). Both treatment
plants in Milwaukee are utilizing innovative methods to reuse biosolid waste and turn
it into something productive and necessary. For the most part, the two plants
are sufficient for handling the city’s wastewater treatment needs: “On a
dry day, the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District's two wastewater
treatment plants combined will clean about 200 million gallons of wastewater.
When it rains, the volume of water that pours into the sewer system can reach
five, six, seven times that dry day amount or even more for big storms” (MMSD).
It is these rainy days that set off sewer overflows in the city, since the
combined maximum capacity of the two treatment plants is only 600 million
gallons per day (MMSD).
Dealing with Sewer Overflows:
has been notorious for its sewer overflows, both CSOs and SSOs, especially
before the year 1994 when a tunnel system was constructed to minimize
overflows. Prior to implementation of the Deep Tunnel Inline Storage System
(ISS), Milwaukee’s CSO and SSO
volumes averaged well above 8 billion gallons per year (MMSD). Since completion
of the ISS, that average has dropped to just above 1 billion gallons per year
(MMSD). The number of overflow events has also dropped significantly, from
50-80 overflow events before construction of the Deep Tunnel down to an average
of between 2 and 3 events per year (MMSD). A lawsuit in the late 1970’s forced Milwaukee
to seek solutions to its severe dumping problem. Thus, a $3 billion project was
initiated to improve the sewer system and virtually eliminate dumping (MMSD).
The result of this project is the Deep Tunnel.
what is the Deep Tunnel, and how does it work? Basically, the Deep Tunnel is
simply an enormous system of sewers very deep underground. It is very similar
to Chicago’s TARP system, which was
installed almost 10 years earlier. Excess wastewater is stored in these tunnels
until the treatment plants have the capacity to treat it (MMSD). The tunnels
are between 120 and 330 feet underground. Thus far, there have been two phases
of the Deep Tunnel project. Phase 1, completed in 1994, consisted of a 17-mile
long system of tunnels which could hold up to 405 million gallons of wastewater
(MMSD). Phase 2, which was expected to go online in 2005, is 7.1 miles long and
can hold an additional 88 million gallons of wastewater (MMSD). Evidence has
shown that Milwaukee’s Deep Tunnel
system has been very effective at lowering both the number and volume of sewer
overflows, but in times of heavy rain the system can still become overwhelmed.
In this case, sewage is likely to back up into peoples’ basements. “MMSD’s
highest priority during heavy rain is to prevent basement backups.
Unfortunately, one of the only ways to provide relief to the sewer system and
stop the flows from backing up is to have an overflow of wastewater” (MMSD).
have not completely ceased. In fact, the city set a record in 2004 by
dumping 4.6 billion gallons of sewage into Lake Michigan in one
(however, a year later, the MMSD lowered that figure to only 1.2
gallons. It remains unclear what the actual amount was) (MMSD). Between
1994 (when the Deep Tunnel was completed) and 2004, "43
SSOs...discharged more than 935 million gallons of full-strength,
untreated sewage, and at least 24 CSOs...discharged more than 12
billion gallons of raw sewage and stormwater" into Milwaukee's rivers
and Lake Michigan (Dorfman, 51).
not completely mitigating the problem of overflows in Milwaukee,
there have been other problems with the Deep Tunnel system since it was
installed. In 2001, the Red Star yeast company sued the MMSD, stating that “raw
sewage leaking from the deep tunnel system has contaminated a well used by the
Red Star Yeast plant in Milwaukee” (Rohde and Schultze). The fear is that
cracks in the Deep Tunnel have allowed sewage to seep down and contaminate the
groundwater. According to the lawsuit, “fecal contamination turned up
periodically at the well after the tunnel opened in late 1993” (Rohde and
Schultze). A 2000 study by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel found that “the
tunnels frequently leak, even when not completely filled, and have polluted
groundwater. The sewerage district doesn't see this as a problem and has no
plan to fix it; officials at the state Department of Natural Resources have
known about it for five years and said they are concerned but not to the point
of ordering remedial action” (Rohde). If the sewerage district does not see
contaminating groundwater as a problem, and the DNR is not about to do anything
about the recognized problem, it comes down to concerned citizens to take
action and put an end to this dangerous mismanagement.
MMSD does currently have an overflow reduction plan underway. This plan
combines several initiatives, which, when enacted, should help curb the problem
of overflows. These initiatives include: additional storage, maintenance and
upgrading of monitors and weather reporting systems, upgrading treatment
plants, sewer construction and rehabilitation, stormwater reduction, and flood
management (MMSD). These projects, with a combined cost of over $900 million,
are expected to be completed by 2010.
Citizen Environmental Action:
a strong contingent of citizen groups fighting for improved wastewater
management. The outrage that followed the 1993 cryptosporidiosis
outbreak is still strong. This is evident each time the city is forced
to dump sewage into Lake
Michigan, when a wave of angry letters and editorials are sure to
follow. Active citizen groups in the area include: Citizens for a Better
Environment, Friends of Milwaukee’s Rivers, Keep Greater Milwaukee Beautiful,
and the Alliance for the Great
of Milwaukee’s Rivers and the Alliance
for the Great Lakes have been in a tough legal battle
recently with the MMSD. The two groups “filed suit in U.S. District Court in
March 2002, charging that MMSD had violated the Clean Water Act by discharging
about 1 billion gallons of raw industrial and domestic waste to area waterways
since 1995 (Alliance). Though this case was dismissed in September of 2004, the
groups appealed the case the following month (Alliance).
citizens have also gotten invloved with "Adopt-a-beach" campaigns to
ensure beach and lake water quality. Hikers, boaters, swimmers, beach
goers, and other residents of Milwaukee have reported diminished
enjoyment of what should be the city's greatest asset. People are
starting to make their voice heard through editorials and
writing/speaking to elected representatives in the city.
One of Milwaukee's Harbors (http://www.bikethehoan.com/)
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Aerial View of Milwaukee (www.milwacky.com)
A sailboat in Lake Michigan nears the edge of a CSO plume with "unknown contents."
(link to Milwaukee Journal Sentinal Article, May 29, 2004).
Milwaukee youth participating in "Adopt-a-Beach" at Bradford Beach, one of Milwaukee's most polluted beaches.