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Transforming Water Challenges into Resources

This week Milwaukee’s Public Policy Forum is playing  host to government researchers from across the country. Water resource management was one of the topics they tackled.

Not so long ago this conversation that attracted a conference roomful of government researchers might have been titled the latest in WASTE water management.

Kevin Shafer says those days are over. He’s executive director the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District. As the conference host city Shafer had the chance to blow MMSD’s horn.

He says sustainability started long before he came on the scene in 2002. In the 1920s Milwaukee came up with way to package and sell the “solids” left in the treatment process. The raw material used to call the raw material “sludge”

“Which was such a terrible term. So now we call it bio-solids. It sounds so much better. And since 1926, Milwaukee has been producing the fertilizer for your lawn, it’s call Milorganite – Milwaukee-Organic-Nitrogen,” Shafer says.

Shafer admits, business at the city’s two sewerage treatment plants has not always been rosy. Until its massive deep tunnel system was installed, the city was plagued by repeated basement backups and overflows during “not even so” major storm events.

“I should add we had a lawsuit in the late 1970s that drove Milwaukee to the deep tunnel system,” Shafer says.

Today Milwaukee sees light at the end of the tunnel. It has not only dramatically reduced storm overflow incidents, but the sewerage district and partner groups are reaching upstream to try to reduce polluting runoff. MMSD has also set out to achieve a high-bar sustainability plan

Panelist Brian Jensen says right now the sprawling Pittsburgh Pennsylvania sewerage system has no time to contemplate such lofty goals.

He’s with the Allegheny Conference on Community Development and says Pittsburgh is under EPA mandate to eliminate sanitary sewer overflows and drastically reduce spillovers at the combined sanitary and storm sewer level. Jensen calls it a daunting $3.6 billion task for a city struggling to “reimagine” its economic future.

“We’re under a consent decree to finish all of our work by 2026; it’s not a very long period of time that we have to deal with these issues. And again, we have such a variety of organizations and agencies involved in this – 83 municipalities, the county health department, the department of environmental protection at the state level and the EPA, we’ve got a lot of hoops to jump through and a lot work to do until we get to the point that we’re in compliance,” Jensen says.

David Ullirch shifted the discussion from Pittsburgh’s challenges back to the Great Lakes. He represents a consortium of 107 cities bordering the water bodies and says their list of concerns begins with the “letter a” - the threat of Asian carp.

“Another situation up on Ontario, they’re proposing a deep geologic one kilometer from the shore of Lake Huron for low and intermediate radioactive waste. That’s something that affects the entire Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence. I think we need to find a ways to look at these things, where the political boundaries whether it’s national, state, provincial, city, county whatever, become less significant, where collaboration ought to be ccuring; an area of affect if you will. This may be revolutionary or heretical or something like that, but I just think we have to get better at it,” Ullrich says.

The sheer abundance of Great Lakes water left one audience member from an unnamed western state astounded. He says where he comes from, capturing rainwater in barrels would be illegal because it would would impact somebody else’s water rights downstream.

He asked MMSD’s Kevin Shafer, does Milwaukee have any issues around water rights?

Shafer answered with a single word.


EPA storm water specialist Bob Newport stepped in to add context.

“I think in general we’ve been viewed as a water-rich region. And we’re trying to mimic the natural hydrology when we talk about green infrastructure. What would happen in a natural condition if we didn’t have these parking lots and we capture that water in a raingarden and the same amount of water soaks in as would have happened if the parking lot was never there to begin with. And so when you have that thought, we’re just mimicking the natural condition then we don’t encounter those kinds of things. But we also don’t have the relative shortage of water so the water rights are just not in effect in the northeast and Midwest, like you see in the western states,” Newport says.

“Even though there aren’t disputes over capturing water, there’s a lot of attention to diverting water,” David Ullrich with the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative interjects, “and that water quantity issue is big time right now, because of the low lake levels, particularly in Lake Michigan and Lake Huron.”

Brian Jensen from Pittsburgh jumps in.

“One of the issues we’re dealing with, our Ohio River sanitary group, they’re very concerned about the potential for diverting water from the Ohio River basin down to the Tennessee Valley area. We don’t have the authority yet, to keep those kinds of diversions from happening but it is on our minds. Even though we do have an abundance of water we want to make sure we continue to keep that abundance,” Jensen says.

A universal question popped up that applies to the water-rich and water-poor alike. How do you come up with the breath-taking sums required to pull off water resource management projects?

MMSD’s Kevin Shafer’s advise? You have to be able tie it economic benefits.

“To economic improvements, to public health and safety improvements. I think those are some of the big themes. And then of course you also tie the word “jobs” becaue everyone wants to say there are jobs, jobs jobs. Talk about jobs. So it’s that economic piece I think is really biggest seller for some of these things.”

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.<br/>