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Beneath Our Feet, Beneath Our Rivers

by Vince Bushell

Flushing the toilet results in an out-of-sight, out-of-mind phenomenon. The construction on Humboldt Boulevard should remind us that the sewers exist as a web under our feet. From small to large, the sewer pipes lead to Jones Island where the wastewater is treated and returned to the lake free of solids and bacteria. The solid waste is converted to Milorganite, Milwaukee’s trademark lawn care fertilizer product sold around the country. Heavy rains result in more water in the system than can be handled. Through a series of automatic gates and drop shafts, the excess water is allowed to enter the deep tunnel system. Built as part of the $2.8 billion Water Pollution Abatement Program, the deep tunnel near Riverwest is 275 to 325 feet below the Milwaukee River. The tunnel is 17 to 32 feet in diameter. After the rain, the wastewater is pumped out of the tunnel and treated at Jones Island. The tunnels can hold up to 405 million gallons of wastewater. The system serves 1.2 million Milwaukee area residents. The Metro Milwaukee Sewerage District (MMSD) states that the Deep Tunnel System prevented 32 overflows in 2000. The system has greatly reduced the number of overflows that occurred before it was opened in 1993. But citizen concern remains high, with high coliform counts closing beaches up and down the shore. It seems simple to point to overflows of the metro sewer system as the culprit. Certainly overflows do not help. Why the beach closings? The answer may partly lie with overflows, but most likely there are other factors that are contributing. Sea gulls, low water, and more frequent testing are mentioned as possible reasons for the increase in beach closings last summer. The good news is that the contamination is localized. The bad news for swimmers is that the problem is near the shore. What can the average citizen do? Keep contaminants such as pet waste and automobile fluids off the streets and out of the storm sewers. Pet waste should be wrapped and put in your garbage cart. Rake your leaves so the sanitation trucks can take them away. Connect a rain barrel to your downspout to lessen the amount of rainwater in our sewers. Clear water in the sewer system is what causes the overflows to begin with. Riverwest Currents – Volume 1 – Issue 10 – November 2002
by Vince Bushell