The following is excerpted from a truly excellent article on the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewer District's Deep Tunnel system. Considered controversial by many media outlets and the general public, it is looked to by water management agencies and experts around the country and the world, as the most progressive system around.
At the tail end of the excerpt are simple, inexpensive things you personally can do to reduce storm runoff into the sewer systems in your area, which is the major cause of sewage overflow events into the lakes. I will also provide a link to the full article at the end. I highly recommend reading the full article to my readers.
Reverend Dan Stafford - First Church of Healing the Earth
The Deep Tunnel
Perhaps no aspect of MMSD is misunderstood as much as the 19.4-mile-long Deep Tunnel, which runs 300 feet beneath area waterways, with a storage capacity of about 405 million gallons. It has been blamed for not doing the job it was built to do, as well as causing the water table to draw down and damage the pilings of numerous Downtown buildings, including the Boston Store.
“This area loves to debate whether the Deep Tunnel was a good idea or not,” said MMSD spokesman Bill Graffin. “We’ve been doing it for 20 years, and we’ll probably do it for a lot longer. We can look at the future, and what it’s going to take to further improve the waterways, or we can keep debating whether the Deep Tunnel was a good idea.”
In Chicago, a deep tunnel system five times the size of Milwaukee’s is nearing completion. Unlike in Milwaukee, Chicago’s system is being hailed by the media there as a modern wonder, MMSD officials point out.
While acknowledging that MMSD needs to do more to get overflows and volumes down, Executive Director Kevin Shafer says that expanding the tunnel to prevent future overflows would be prohibitively expensive—an estimated $8 billion to $9 billion.
Instead, Shafer says MMSD is focused on a long-term, multifaceted strategy designed to reduce stormwater runoff, which is a major cause of sewage overflows into the lake.
“It’s just an evolution,” Shafer said of MMSD’s efforts and the public’s expectations. “In 1972, the Clean Water Act passed, and everyone started looking at the point sources, the treatment plants. We addressed those very well in Milwaukee, even though we still have to do better on that. Now we are evolving to the next thing we need to do for water quality here in Milwaukee, which is containing stormwater runoff.”
West Allis Mayor and MMSD Commissioner Jeannette Bell called MMSD’s track record of cleaning up sewers and local waterways one of the best in the nation. “To go from 50 or 60 overflows per year down to two—that’s a significant improvement,” Bell said. “There is no system that can be built so large that a rainfall wouldn’t come and overload it.”
Despite her organization’s ongoing scrutiny of MMSD, Broaddus, of Friends of Milwaukee’s Rivers, says that her group doesn’t consider the Deep Tunnel a failure.
“What we are saying is that MMSD can do a whole lot better,” Broaddus said. “The question is not ‘Does the Deep Tunnel work?’ But what is the most cost-effective way to reduce overflows and the amount of sewage going through our system? We still have overflows and increasing amounts of rainfall getting into our system.”
Three years ago, before Theiler left the DNR for Seattle, he was brought in to lead an audit of MMSD operations, which includes the privatized management system run by United Water Service. Assisted by some of the best water-quality specialists from the DNR, the audit determined that “for the critical operations, they were doing a good job,” Theiler said.
That assessment isn’t always shared by residents of southeastern Wisconsin, although perhaps it should be.
“We should be really proud of the system that we have put in place,” Shafer said. “You can go to UWM to analyze their water-quality data and see the scientific proof, or you can just go to the riverfront in the summertime. This body of water has really improved.”
MMSD, the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, is a state-chartered regional agency providing both wastewater treatment and flood management to about 1.1 million people in 28 different communities covering 420 square miles. This area includes Milwaukee, Waukesha and Ozaukee counties, and small parts of Racine and Washington counties. Each community owns and runs its own sewer system. Everything flows downstream to the Jones Island treatment plant, and to a separate treatment plant in Oak Creek.
The Deep Tunnel came online in the latter part of 1993, at a cost of about $1 billion, and was designed to keep combined sewer overflows to a minimum. Other related improvements totaled $1.3 billion, for a total of $2.3 billion. About 45% was paid by federal grants. As part of a $900 million Overflow Reduction Plan, MMSD is currently expanding the Deep Tunnel system.
Stormwater and non-agricultural polluted runoff have been identified as the biggest source of pollution. Stormwater results from rain running off of streets, yards, roofs and parking lots. Occasionally, the regional sewer system is overwhelmed by flows from the combined sewers. When this happens, flows are diverted to the Deep Tunnel for storage until there is room at the treatment plants to clean the excess wastewater.
Along with stormwater, Combined sewers take in wastewater from residential showers, sinks and toilets. Combined sewers are typically found in older sections of Milwaukee and Shorewood.
During heavy rains, Combined sewer overflows can lead to stormwater pollutants and untreated sewage entering rivers and Lake Michigan. The untreated sewage may contain potentially harmful bacteria. MMSD estimates that combined sewer overflows consist of about 85% stormwater and 15% sewage.
Overflows occur when a storm provides more rainwater than the system can handle. These overflows can occur even when the Deep Tunnel is not at full capacity. Wastewater from the combined sewer areas of Milwaukee and Shorewood hits the tunnel shortly after a storm. The combined sewer area accounts for roughly 5% of the district’s total coverage area, compared to 95% for separate sanitary sewers intended to carry only human waste matter. Whereas the wastewater from the combined sewer areas arrives quickly, it can take hours for flows from the separate sewer area to reach the Deep Tunnel. Because the overflows from separate sewer areas are more harmful to the environment, MMSD needs to ensure that there is enough room in the tunnel for that wastewater.
Sewer Wars: This protracted dispute between the city and suburbs stemmed from a period dating back to 1982 when city residents favored using the traditional property tax method to pay for capital improvements by MMSD. On the other side, suburban residents wanted to do it on a flow basis, giving their group the acronym FLOW (Fair Liquidation of Waste). Had the suburban approach been adopted, costs would have been shifted onto city residents, said MMSD lobbyist Bill Broydrick. A $140.7 million settlement was reached in 1996 to recoup capital costs for sewerage charges.
In 1972, the Clean Water Act gave the Environmental Protection Agency the authority to create legal standards for pollution control. The act also funded construction for sewage treatment plants to deal with both point-source and non-point-source pollution.
The Southeast Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (SEWRPC), a regional governmental agency, is updating a Regional Water Quality Management Plan for the greater Milwaukee watershed. SEWRPC is also providing input to help MMSD formulate its 2020 Facilities Plan, which outlines substantial future capital improvements. SEWRPC maintains up-to-date reports on the current status of water quality in the region, which is monitored by two boats that go out and regularly take samples on area waterways.
Overflow Reduction Plan: Stipulated by the DNR and court-ordered, the overflow reduction plan is $900 million worth of work that will be done by 2010. This includes more Deep Tunnel expansion, treatment plant upgrades, and sewer rehabilitation.
There are steps we can all take to promote water conservation and lessen the risk of sewer overflows.
Back in May, MMSD officials took some ribbing after sending out a press release asking the public to limit water use in advance of predicted rain. But any public discussion is a signal that people are becoming more aware. The fact is we each use about 65 gallons of water per day. Using less water when there is heavy rain helps reduce the risk of sewage overflows.
“We are trying to help people understand that they have a role in helping improve water quality in Lake Michigan and our rivers,” said Kevin Shafer, MMSD’s executive director. “Landscaping firms are calling asking for information—it’s something that we are starting to see.”
From planting rain gardens and rainwater trees, to installing green roofs, disconnecting downspouts and using rain barrels—there’s an entire litany of things that can be done by developers and homeowners to reduce the amount of water running off into the sewer system, Shafer said.
MMSD sells rain barrels on its Web site, and had sold 2,500 before the spring/summer season started this year. Built out of old pickle barrels by the Milwaukee Community Service Corps, the 55-gallon rain barrels have a hole in the top with a screen over it and a tap on the bottom with a valve on it. The water that hits your roof is collected, and it can be used again later on.
“I have two rain barrels at home and I use the water to water my plants,” Shafer said. “Last summer was kind of dry, and I had water in my two barrels until the middle of August. We get calls from all over the U.S. from people who want to buy them.”
Rain gardens have plants that have a deeper root system, which keeps the soil turned up and absorbs more water. A proper rain garden will absorb 30% more than a well-manicured lawn.
For more information about rain barrels, rain gardens and other water conservation measures such as limiting water use inside your home, go to the MMSD Web site at: http://www.mmsd.com/programs/every_drop_counts1.cfm.
Link to full story: