Water, Water Everywhere But Not a Drop to Drink

For full disclosure, it should be known that the president of our board is also the chairman of the board of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District. This fact does not influence my writing … but others might disagree.

Here we are, the pinnacle of civilization, and we still don’t know how to handle our own waste! There is value in auditing the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD), as has been proposed by community leaders, but let’s not forget whose mess the MMSD is chartered to clean up. Before continuing, a few definitions are needed.

“I hate to say it, but there is absolutely no way of fixing this mess without spending more money.”

Combined sewage system: A system in which all the waste from your house (toilets, washing machines, etc.) flow through pipes that “combine” with lines coming from street storm grates. One set of pipes has nutrient-rich sewage; the other has nutrient-rich runoff from lawns in addition to oils, antifreeze spills, etc., from the streets. All this “combined” water is routed to treatment facilities. One-third (or 20 square miles) of Milwaukee and much of the village of Shorewood have this “combined” system under their streets. Separated sewage system: A system in which all sewage is directed to the treatment plant and all rain runoff is routed directly into the local waterways…and not treated. Separated systems comprise much of Milwaukee and most of the suburbs (400 square miles total). Deep Tunnel: A tool designed to reduce direct dumping of sewage into rivers and lakes. It is a large, human-built cavern under Milwaukee that stores excess sewage during flood events so treatment facilities do not get overwhelmed. As the flood recedes, the sewage is pumped back into the system for treatment. C’mon folks, let’s take some responsibility here. As I see it, there are four options available for us to fix this mess, but only one that has real merit. 1) I, a fellow flusher of toilets, must leave. It is that simple. There are too many people using too much water and relying on a system that is too small. Unfortunately, if I leave here, I’ll probably be contributing to the problem somewhere else. 2) To stop the sewage overflow, we could separate the sewers in Milwaukee. This popular solution, however, is not only extremely expensive, but there are questions as to whether it would actually improve the water. The “invisible” crisis of nutrient-rich runoff will persist unabated. 3) There is absolutely no question that the deep tunnel system helps. Since it was built, we have dramatically reduced overflows from over 50 to well less than 10 per year, on average. Building a bigger system is a viable option, but extremely expensive. In very rough terms, the existing tunnel cost about $1 billion and has reduced overflows by 90 percent. To fix the final 10 percent via a larger underground reservoir, however, would cost between $4 and $5 billion! If this were the only solution, it would be worth the expense; however, a cheaper, long-term, solution exists. 4) Embrace the value of diversity. A healthy ecosystem is sustained by an amazing biodiversity. On the human front, the most successful systems take this lesson from nature to heart. A diverse array of energy sources leads to a strong and stable energy system; a diversity of income leads to a strong and stable business, etc. The solution to the sewage crisis involves a similar strategy of diversity. Here are some of the methods we can use: We must evaluate our daily use of water, especially during heavy rains, and adjust habits to conserve water. This means turning off the water when we brush teeth, or washing only a full load of dishes. During heavy rains, we can also hold off on laundry, flush less often, etc. For a complete list of water-saving measures, visit the Ecology Center and ask for the Clean Wisconsin water poster. We must audit how storm water is controlled by our homes and/or businesses, and encourage landlords to do the same. This type of audit could be a service provided by the MMSD. Visit the Ecology Center’s new facility to see a complete array of these systems in action, including disconnected rain gutters, rain barrels, rain gardens, and more. We must reduce the nutrients that we add to the environment. This one is challenging, as a green, weed-free lawn is a cultural icon. We need to redefine beauty and appreciate a diverse and healthy lawn, complete with nitrogen-fixing clover and an array of grasses. If, however, you insist on using fertilizer or a lawn service, consider a reduction in the nutrient use. I’ll wager that you are using too much, and that your lawn quality will stay the same. I hate to say it, but there is absolutely no way of fixing this mess without spending more money. We may need to purchase a few items for our homes, including water-saving devices for inside and outside. For those who don’t have the money, perhaps the MMSD could set up credits or incentives for the purchase of important water-saving attachments. We will also need to accept the fact that we need to pay more taxes for the next seven years or so to let the MMSD do a few important things: increase the deep tunnel size a bit; add the above-mentioned storm grates; support on site biofiltration systems at parking lots; work on conservation measures with local industries that use large volumes of water, and encourage them to increase their citizen awareness programs. This last point is huge. Home conservation is important, but certain industries contribute significantly to the overflow problem. Most of all, taking collective responsibility for our shared and precious resource is the only long-term solution.
by Ken Leinbach