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Preparing for the Unpredictable

Susan Bence

As another batch of seesawing weather conditions arrives in Wisconsin – from flooding to snow, leaders have been planning for the worst while hoping for the best.

WUWM Environmental Reporter Susan Bence checked with people in metro Milwaukee preparing for what might – or might not – come.

Sandy Rusch Walton with Milwaukee’s Department of Public Works says residents started calling first thing Tuesday, following the first big round of rain.

“Sewer crews are out and we’re taking care of complaints of backwater or surface flooding or ponding. So we want to make sure we get all that excess water off the street before the temperatures do start to drop,” Rusch Walton says.

She says the next trick was to figure out when workers should start applying salt to the streets.

"We want to make sure we are ready for that next event and the probably mean going out and doing some salting once that rain stops. Obviously we can’t salt when it’s raining, it just washes right off the streets," Rusch Walton says.

Normally this time of year, the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District is ticking through a checklist of routine “off season” repairs. Spokesperson Bill Graffin says workers are in the middle of rehabbing a powerful pump 320 feet below ground in the deep tunnel.

“They pump water out of the tunnel, lift it up to ground level and then it flows by gravity to Jones Island or South Shore," Graffin says.

Crews have already finished work on two other pumps.

"We’ve taken those from about 45 million gallons a day to about 65 million gallons a day. That’s how much extra pumping we can get out of them after they’re rehabbed, so we’re getting that currently to the third and final pump that hasn’t been rehabbed yet. So we’ll be in better position for raining season once it’s arrived, and apparently it arrived early this year,” Graffin says.

Graffin says, as of late Tuesday, the deep tunnel was far from capacity, but technicians would continue monitoring how the weather unfolded.

“There’s 108 million gallons in the tunnel right now, it holds 521. We need to keep an eye on the system; we have monitors throughout the system; we need to keep an eye on the rain. If we have to have a combined sewer overflow to reduce the risk of basement backups – that’s what we look for; that our number one priority during a storm is to reduce the risk of basement backups for homeowners and businesses,” Graffin says.

Shorewood village manager Chris Swartz cringes at the thought of backed up basements. In July, 2010 hundreds of homeowners lived the experience when a furious downpour swept through the area.

Since then, the village embarked on multi-million dollar project to update wastewater infrastructure.

“We have two large sections of the village which is the northeast side and the northwest. We are about 70 percent completed in those areas. We have a project in 2014-2015 and we’ll complete those areas. And then we have the biggest project, which is estimated as $16 million is the southeast side combined area,” Swartz says.

Swartz says the stretches of newly engineered pipeline add substantially to Shorewood’s protection. However, until now, rain has not tested it.

“I hope we don’t have to test that,” Swartz adds.

All three conversations with the “weather watchers” struck a common theme – hope for the best.

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.