The Metropolitan Milwaukee Sewerage District’s Impact on Lake Michigan
Since 1977, taxpayers in the Milwaukee metropolitan area have paid nearly $3 billion for a state-of-the-art sewerage system. Its centerpiece is the Water Pollution Abatement Program (WPAP), completed in 1996. The WPAP, the largest public works project ever undertaken in Wisconsin, increases the capacity of metropolitan-area sewerage treatment plants to handle wastewater. It relies on several components to do this, including a new system of large underground tunnels in which wastewater is stored and treated before it is pumped to the surface for release. As stated originally, the goal of WPAP was to reduce the incidence of sewage overflows — a chronic problem for as long as the area has had a sewerage system — thus improving water quality in Lake Michigan.
Since 1996, however, the sewers have continued to overflow, dumping untreated sewage into Lake Michigan and its waterways on several occasions. On June 12, 2000 for example, 16 million gallons of partially treated sewage were dumped into Lake Michigan after Milwaukee received less than one inch of rain. The MMSD plant manager explained this was necessary to avoid dumping into local rivers. And on April 9, 2001, 193 million gallons of sewage were dumped after only 0.71 inches of rain due to human error. The overflow episodes have been associated with fecal coliform contamination in beach areas (other sources of contamination also have contributed to this problem), forcing beach closings. In addition, WPAP tunnels have been found in at least one instance to leak sewage, contaminating groundwater in violation of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Sewerage District’s (MMSD’s) operating permit.
It seems to be a déjà vu experience. Newspaper headlines in Milwaukee and Chicago highlight ongoing sewage-dumping problems and controversies just as they did more than 30 years ago. (See Appendix A) Officials in Illinois once again point to Milwaukee as a source of lake water contamination, and local environmental groups are demanding once again that the MMSD take steps to prevent sewage overflows. Unsettled technical problems about how best to handle sewage problems continue to provoke disagreement among specialists and politicians, and the responsible agencies — Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) — have been unable thus far to provide consistent, effective oversight.
For its part the MMSD contends that it has met its permit requirements and that sewage overflows have been reduced, thanks to the WPAP, even though they have not been entirely eliminated. Further improvements have been done and are continuing to be done. Planned projects to be completed by 2011 in combination with the completion of the MMSD’s 2020 plan will cost nearly $2 billion.
The situation overall raises obvious questions. What was the Water Pollution Abatement Program (WPAP)? Were taxpayers misled by early claims about the potential of the WPAP? Why is there so much confusion about its objectives? To what extent have those objectives been met? Why is the MMSD now planning to spend $2 billion more to address issues for which taxpayers may believe they have already paid?
Susan S. Hein – September 2003