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Great Lakes Article:

Lake can take some pollution, but experts still worry about overflows, runoff
By Lee Berquist
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Published July 11, 2004


Sewage overflows are never good.

But many experts say Lake Michigan can swallow this spring's pollution from Milwaukee's largest sewage overflows since construction of the deep tunnel system in 1994.

The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District's overflows are, "clearly, problems Milwaukee has to continue to work on," said Russell G. Kreis Jr., station director at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Research and Development in Grosse Ile, Mich.

"But as time goes on, (the pollution) will be diluted out," he said. "The lake does recycle, and it does clean itself up - it has the capacity to do that."

In fact, the overflows were not the only thing fouling local waterways. Regulators are worried about the even greater volumes of polluted runoff that carried everything from Ozaukee County cow manure to Milwaukee street grime into the lake during May.

Both the overflows and runoff sent bacteria levels skyrocketing on local waterways, but after a few days in the cold waters of Lake Michigan, much of the bacteria died out.

One reason experts believe the lake can handle MMSD's overflows is that most of it was water. The state Department of Natural Resources estimates that most overflows are 90% or more water, plus sewage and other pollutants.

And then there is Lake Michigan's size. MMSD's overflow of 4.6 billion gallons - the biggest to date, and followed by an unexpected overflow of more than 1.6 million gallons July 4 - is tiny compared with the 1.3 quadrillion gallons in the lake. (There are 1,000 trillions in 1 quadrillion.)

Before construction of the deep tunnel, MMSD reported an average of 50 overflows a year.

"Compared to when there was no deep tunnel, and many more billions of gallons were going out into the lake, the lake's survived much worse," said Charles Melching, a civil and environmental engineer at Marquette University.

Discharges demand attention
Still, some scientists and environmentalists say MMSD's big discharges can't be ignored.

"If this is a long-term occurrence, a big lake can only absorb so much until you reach a point where it becomes overpowering," said Art Brooks, a specialist in aquatic ecology at the Great Lakes Water Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

"Lake Michigan is certainly big enough to absorb an awful lot, but we don't need to throw insults at it to test its limits."

Joel Brammeier, acting executive director of the Lake Michigan Federation, said the overflows can't be pooh-poohed because "sewage overflows are a known source of contamination for Great Lakes beaches. That's something that we can do something about."

The DNR has begun an enforcement action against the sewerage district. Mary Schlaefer, executive assistant to DNR Secretary Scott Hassett, said Friday that it would be Aug. 1 before the agency decided what steps it would take.

MMSD's troubles come at a time when there are other big worries about the Great Lakes.

Great Lakes state governors will soon get a long-awaited report on how the region can protect its supply of fresh water amid drought and growing water demand.

While it is improving, Lake Michigan's waters still need to get better. Southern Lake Michigan is more polluted than the northern part of the lake. Lower portions of the Milwaukee, Menomonee and Kinnickinnic rivers, the Milwaukee Harbor and the near shore area of Lake Michigan constitute one of 26 areas in the Great Lakes region considered the most polluted and are targeted for cleanup.

Runoff poses many problems
And then there are the problems with runoff.

During May, polluted water poured into the lake at near record proportions.

There have been only five months since 1914 when more water moved through the Milwaukee River, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Huge volumes of brown, turbid water were racing through the Kinnickinnic and the Menomonee rivers, as well. All three of the rivers, mingling with MMSD's overflows, flushed into the harbor, leaving tendrils of brown water to mix with the lake.

"The wake of the water looked like Leinie's Red," said Tom Schulz, former commodore of the South Milwaukee Yacht Club. He motored his 32-foot boat through the harbor after the overflows. "It was atrocious-looking."

The DNR considers runoff the state's biggest water quality threat. The agency estimates that runoff threatens 40% of the state's streams and rivers and 90% of its lakes with the pollutants and sediments it picks up along the way.

On June 22, Kevin L. Shafer, executive director of the district, told members of the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board that runoff is a bigger worry than the district's overflows.

But state auditors concluded in a July 2002 audit that after the deep tunnel was built in 1994, MMSD overflows were polluting more than expected. The district dumped 13.2 billion gallons of untreated wastewater into local waterways between 1994 and 2002, auditors found.

Water quality during that period improved only in the areas served by the combined sewer system - an area that represents 7% of MMSD's territory. But because of overflows and runoff, water quality did not improve in the rest of Milwaukee and the suburbs, the auditors found.

Overflows' effects under study
Scientists and government agencies are still assessing the effects of the overflows this spring.

MMSD records show sharp increases for one type of bacteria in the Milwaukee, Menomonee and Kinnickinnic rivers during the overflows. Public health experts use fecal coliform, found in the waste of people and animals, as a marker for other disease-causing bacteria.

The highest count was on May 14 - 54,000 units per 100 milliliters on the Menomonee in the Menomonee River Valley. Counts hit 21,000 and 27,000 at two locations on the Kinnickinnic north of W. Oklahoma Ave. The state standard is 400 for recreational swimming, but, according to the DNR, counts that high are not uncommon after rains. Levels also increased in Lake Michigan, but never as high.

By June 9, bacteria levels had all fallen to acceptable levels.

The test results mirror the work of UWM researcher Sandra McLellan, who was looking for a different bacteria, E. coli.

She found E. coli levels 10 times higher in the river and in the harbor than government-recommended limits for recreational water. But the bacteria almost disappeared as water from the harbor moved into the lake.

"The lake conditions are pretty harsh," said McLellan, whose research is partially funded by MMSD. "The water's cold, and we see E. coli drop off pretty quickly."

There are unknowns, however. Little is understood about the lives of more harmful bacteria such as Cryptosporidium and Giardia in the lake, she said. These organisms might live longer in the lake, she said.

A saving grace of the overflows and accompanying runoff is that Lake Michigan water in May is cold, and virtually nobody was swimming in it.

From May 17 to June 6, the beach at South Shore Park was either closed or posted with signs advising people not to swim because of high levels of E. coli, Milwaukee Health Department records show.

North at McKinley Beach, conditions were only slightly better. The beach was closed or posted 16 out of 21 days.

At Bradford, depending on the location, the beach was closed or posted eight to 10 times during the three-week period, monitoring data shows.

But afterward, bacteria levels sharply improved. UWM's McLellan, a beach water quality expert, said it is simplistic to blame MMSD for high bacteria counts.

Beaches are influenced more by local factors. Studies have shown that bacteria can remain in the sand for months. Runoff, a nearby storm pipe, wave action and the slope of the beach can all play roles in beach pollution.

Gulls are also a big factor, McLellan said. Ounce for ounce, the birds excrete far more E. coli than their pesky urban neighbor, the Canada goose.

Steve Schultze and Marie Rohde of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report

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