End the duopoly

How the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District Handles the Challenge of Climate Change

The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) is a state-chartered agency providing wastewater treatment and flood management to 1.1 million people in 28 communities spread across five counties. The MMSD is scapegoated whenever a flood or sewage overflow occurs and is especially targeted by opportunistic politicians, but it is regarded as a model system nationally and internationally for its ability to keep maintain high standards of health and safety for the people it serves.

The MMSD’s director sat down with the Shepherd Express and explained the work of his agency and some of the new challenges it faces.

What is the mission of the MMSD?

We’re really trying to manage water in a holistic fashion—to do it in a cost-effective manner to reduce pollutants getting in the rivers and into Lake Michigan, which is where our drinking water supply comes from. So, our mission is to improve the environment cost-effectively, but it’s getting harder to do that with the changing climate that we’re currently facing.

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Let’s go back 30 years ago, before the Deep Tunnel. There were overflows that were more common than anyone wanted. Then, the tunnel was built—a big storage tank, essentially—which altered the situation. So, how many overflows were happening before the tunnel, and how many are occurring today?

Prior to the Deep Tunnel coming online in August 1993, we had an average of 50 to 60 overflows per year, and unfortunately there are still cities in the U.S. that are still having numbers like that. Since the tunnel was built, we’ve cut that annual number of overflows to just over two.

So, there was real improvement there?

Absolutely, and one of the statistics that we like to talk about is that since the tunnel’s construction, it has captured and cleaned 98.5% of all the water that’s come into the system. The federal requirement is that we have to be above 85%. I don’t know of any other utility in the country that’s had a success rate like we’ve had.

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