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Report Addresses Milwaukee's Aging Sewer & Water Systems

The Jones Island Water Reclamation Facility

Out of sight and out of mind is the typical dynamic when it comes to the pipes that bring us drinking water, or the system that takes storm and waste water out of our homes and neighborhoods.  But things change when there’s a crisis.

The Milwaukee-based Public Policy Forum just released Beneath the Streets: The outlook for Metro Milwaukee's largest water and sewer infrastructure assets - the latest in a series of a reports on the state of Milwaukee’s infrastructure. Forum president Rob Henken says the report's findings show that key issues need to be addressed promptly.

"The real precipice here is city water and Milwaukee Water Works," he says. Milwaukee faces two key issues: aging water mains and lead pipe service lines.

According to Henken, Milwaukee Water Works, or MWW, water mains are aging and the replacement schedule needs to be significantly enhanced. Lead pipes are an obvious problem that have only gotten more attention as lead water crises have dominated local and national news.

"While certainly there was a recognition that eventually over many, many years those lines would need to be replaced I think now there's an imperative to go much faster," he says.

The report also shows that Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewage District equipment is in overall better condition compared to Milwaukee Water Works, but Henken notes MMSD has the benefit of being a single mission jurisdiction. "There are so many different planning needs and capital needs that go above sewers and water mains and lead service lines, etc."

Public Policy Forum researcher Ben Juarez says there will be a steep price tag for water reclamation facilities assets that will increase in the next five years. The City of Milwaukee's sewers have required more upkeep than usual due to historic rain.

Overall, MWW's situation "is the most alarming," says Henken. He notes part of the slow response of lead pipe replacements was due to city water main breaks occurring at the same time. Although it is not considered negligence, "they have not had an overly ambitious capital improvement program over the past few years," Henken admits.