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MMSD targets repairs to private pipes

Sean Ryan
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Who will fix the leaky pipes? Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District officials are letting area municipalities decide.

During rainstorms, leaky sewer laterals allow extra water into the sewer system, contributing to overflows.

And making repairs is complicated because the laterals are privately owned.

“The problem is it’s always been the lateral, the private laterals,” said Jack Bennett, Franklin director of public works. “Are you going to charge somebody to do it? Do you have government pay for all of it?”

The MMSD proposes to offer area municipalities money to start tackling the problem next year, said district Executive Director Kevin Shafer. The district this month is proposing to dedicate $1 million a year between 2010 and 2015 to the 28 municipalities that send it sewage to be treated at MMSD plants.

Shafer said the five-year program is the start of an effort to ensure the 3,000 miles of private pipes in the district’s service area are in good repair.

It will take much more than $5 million to put a dent in the problem, said Richard Sokol, Greenfield director of neighborhood services. The biggest problem in Greenfield is basement foundation drains that send water into the sewers, he said. It costs on average about $8,000 per house to fix the problem, and there are at least 1,100 old houses that could use the work, he said.

The idea of dedicating money to private pipes stalled last year because of disagreement over how to divide MMSD money among area communities, Shafer said. But this year, the MMSD municipalities worked out a plan to share district money. It will be the subject of public hearings this month and will be considered with the 2010 MMSD budget in October.

Each community contributes property taxes to the district. Under the plan, each community’s share of the $1 million for private pipe repairs would match the proportion the community contributes to the MMSD budget.

Sokol called the idea a “bold and aggressive step,” but said it leaves a lot of details for municipalities to work out, starting with how to raise local money for the effort. To get the MMSD money, each community must contribute 25 percent of the amount it receives from the district.

The requirement leaves municipalities to decide whether to spend their sewer fees for projects to fix private property, Sokol said.

“That does raise a good philosophical question, of course,” he said, “which is, ‘Why are public funds being used for this purpose?’”

In addition, municipalities must decide whether to require residents to fix their pipes or use public money to entice them.

Preston Cole, director of operations for the Milwaukee Department of Public Works, said he prefers to encourage — not mandate — repairs by using public money to investigate private laterals.

When streets are being rebuilt, contractors can take videos of the laterals on the street and notify property owners of problems, said Cole, who spearheaded efforts to fix private lines as chairman of the MMSD Commission last year.

“Once they find out it is collapsed or clogged or problematic, people might be moved to action,” Cole said.

“But being moved to action is quite different than paying the price. That’s where the rubber meets the road.”

Although the availability of MMSD money should initiate repair efforts, Bennett said, he would rather have each municipality deal with repairs on its own.

But there are other problems, Bennett said, such as getting the right to work on private property. Some municipalities can use easements to temporarily turn private pipes into public rights of way, but Franklin cannot without changing its laws, he said.

“It’s a little tough because we don’t have easements. We don’t have rights of entry for private stuff,” Bennett said.

Cole said there are details to work out, but the region must stop water from private pipes overloading the sewer system during rainstorms.

“If we don’t solve that problem, we’ll continue to have overflows,” he said, “and that’s unacceptable.”

One comment

  1. You have to say it the way it is. Not just unacceptable but unbelievable that in this day and age we can allow millions of gallons of raw sewage multiple times per year to flow into our Lake Michigan and it gets looked at as something we should take a look at. The homeowners who are allowing rain water to filter into this sysyem should have to fix it and pay for it over whatever period of time is reasonable. This work should be done ASAP on every home. Raw sewage in our lake is not just unfortunate or unacceptable. Come on people in Milwaukee clean up your act. Just because it’s floating in Lake Michigan doesn’t mean you can wash your hands of it. I am reminded of and ticked off about your problem when I am fishing out of the Manitowoc harbor in the middle of lake Michigan and your forgotten about raw sewage comes floating past my boat. Not pretty and just nasty.

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