By Bill Clements
Special to The Daily Reporter
Two major rainstorms and thousands of basement floods have prompted a search in Milwaukee for the best ways to protect the city from more damage.
Milwaukee Alderman Jim Bohl said, for instance, the city should study, among other things, flood-control requirements for the construction of new homes.
“Everything has to be on the table,” he said, adding some states already have such rules on their books.
The long-term and expensive way to reduce sewer backups would be to separate the combined rain and sewer water systems, a project Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District spokesman Bill Graffin estimated could cost as much as $5.8 billion and take years to do.
A new Milwaukee task force now will search for all flood-prevention solutions between the massive projects and the small adjustments, such as disconnecting downspouts.
According to a Monday memo to Mayor Tom Barrett and the 15 aldermen from Jeff Polenske, Milwaukee’s chief engineer, and Preston Cole, director of operations for Milwaukee’s Department of Public Works, the city has received about 5,496 basement flooding complaints. According to the memo, 33 crews are working 10-hour days to investigate each complaint.
As of Monday, crews had investigated 44 percent of the complaints. The city, as of Monday, was estimating the response to the flooding is going to cost Milwaukee’s Department of Public Works $2.35 million — including $634,000 in salaries and $971,000 in operating money.
Federal Emergency Management Agency officials were expected to tour flood-damaged areas in Milwaukee County on Wednesday, and in Grant and possibly other counties starting Monday.
Milwaukee’s flooding task force will consist of members assigned by Barrett and by Common Council President Willie Hines Jr., said Bohl, the sponsor of the task force measure. The idea is to get recommendations from the task force by Feb. 1 to give the council enough time to implement changes in time for next summer’s rain season in June and July.
“A patchwork system of approaches will not be as effective as if we do a comprehensive study,” Bohl said.
But the city has to settle on some solution — patchwork or all-encompassing, Hines said.
“If you have a system that’s built for the 100-year flood,” he said, “but you’re having that 100-year flood every year, you have to modify the system to accommodate the rainfall while recognizing we don’t have unlimited resources.”
To that end, Hines said he wants the task force to study shifting more city money toward solving the flooding problems.
“We need to look at all the systems involved, the resources available and the policies in place,” he said. “Maybe we need to look at disconnecting downspouts and at rain barrels and at rain gardens.”
Alderman Joe Davis said he represents the two ZIP codes — 53216 and 53218 — most hurt by the recent flooding.
“I’m hoping that this task force is not a task force where government entities point fingers at each other,” he said. “Let’s put some teeth in it — as there is something systemically wrong in the city of Milwaukee.”
MMSD’s Graffin said his agency welcomes the new task force.
“The fact that they are setting this up, we think is great,” he said. “We are encouraged that they are taking these steps because it will take everyone working together to solve these problems.”
Bohl said Milwaukee residents have been dealing with more numerous instances of sewer backups during the past three years.
“For too long, we hoped that it was only the rare rain that would result in this,” he said, “and government entities would point fingers at each other and just hope the problem went away. It didn’t.”