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Great Lakes Article:

Officials say sewer overflows not top culprit for water pollution
Published October 24, 2005

MILWAUKEE - Even if taxpayers spend billions of dollars to try to prevent sewage dumping, the area could see only tiny improvements in water quality, according to top officials.

They say money would be better used for projects to stop runoff pollution - like bacteria, dirt and other contaminants - that wash into the Milwaukee, Menomonee and Kinnickinnic rivers as well as Lake Michigan from urban streets and upstream rural areas.

An upcoming study by the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission finds that runoff - not sewer overflows - is the biggest source of water pollution.

The commission's $2 million study was primarily funded by the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District ($1.6 million) and concludes that runoff is the source of 85 percent of waste bacteria in the Menomonee River area that stretches Germantown to Greenfield. The remainder of the study was paid by state and federal funds.

Phil Evenson, head of the regional planning commission, said that more underground wastewater storage tunnels isn't the most cost effective solution.

"How much money will we spend to prevent the last sewage spill into the environment?" he said. "You get to a point of diminishing returns."

Kevin Shafer, executive director of MMSD, said he doesn't believe sewer projects should stop completely. There are $900 million in court-order improvements currently going on in the district, which include a $130 million relief sewer in Wauwatosa and northwest Milwaukee and another $100 million for two other relief sewers still being designed.

The district also may face additional sewer project costs because the state Justice Department has threatened to sue MMSD over continued dumping of raw sewage and untreated storm water after the deep tunnel system was finished in 1993.

Shafer said that spending millions more on a better sewer infrastructure may not improve water quality very much.

"The deep tunnel system has done a wonderful job for water quality," he said. "But the public perception is that it's a failure."

Shafer said that there would still be polluted rivers no matter how much money is spent curbing sewer overflows.

"We're going to do everything we can to get overflows down to zero," he said. "But we need people's help. There's a lot that can be done on private and public property."

Those include constructing rain gardens and disconnecting downspouts at thousands of locations and collecting storm water on the surface, before it reaches sewers or streams, to divert it to specially engineered gardens or wetlands.

Shorewood already has created 50 rain gardens in the last year at a cost of about $2,300 each, Public Works Director Jim Bartnicki said.

Evenson said the sewage tunnel system has largely worked as intended, with dumping incidents declining to only around three a year with the system.

But MMSD's dumping tally stands at more than 14 billion gallons of untreated sewage and tainted storm water discharged into local streams and Lake Michigan since the tunnel project was finished.

"We need to put our money where we're going to get the best impact," Shafer said.

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