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Politics could again cause sewer fix to go down the drain

By Marie Rohde

Dick Wanta, the executive director of the Wisconsin Underground Contractors Association, gave members of the commission that oversees the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District a history lesson the other night.

Wanta has headed his association for 29 years. He remembers the debates and sewer wars that have dominated the sewerage district’s business for more than three decades.

In the late 1970s, Milwaukee was under federal court order to clean up its act when it came to dumping sewage during rain storms.

Two possible solutions were on the table. One involved building new separate sewers in the portion of Milwaukee and Shorewood so that there would be one for waste and one for rain, just like the rest of the communities in the district. The other involved building a massive Deep Tunnel system designed to temporarily store sewage and rain during major storms or rapid snow melts.

The sewerage district’s staff favored separating the sewers in Milwaukee and Shorewood, and that would have required private property owners in that area to relay or fix their sewer laterals.

Politics intervened.

“Then Milwaukee Mayor Henry Maier did not want to require property owners to repair or relay their sanitary sewers, as 1980 was an election year,” said Wanta, quoting “Milwaukee’s Growing Pains, 1950-2000: An Insider’s View,” a book by Richard W. Cutler, a former Cold War spy who was active in Milwaukee law, politics and civic affairs for decades.

The Deep Tunnel system was built and it has drastically reduced the frequency of sewage dumping, but many have questioned whether it has lived up to expectations.

Now, 30 years later, it’s another political year and problems with Milwaukee’s sewers are still a hot button issue.

The solution to the problem is to require all private property owners — those in the separated sewer area as well as the combined sewer area — to fix their laterals. The sewerage district plans to spend $151 million over the next decade.

Wanta, who to many sounds like a broken record, urged the sewerage district to develop a plan of separating the sewers whenever other roadwork is done in an area. It would be a slow process, he said, but a boost to the economy in that it would provide jobs for the construction industry when unemployment is at 30 percent.

It would also provide a lasting solution to the problem that has dogged Milwaukee for so long, Wanta said.

Marie Rohde is a staff writer at The Daily Reporter. She has won numerous awards for her reporting on the MMSD.

One comment

  1. It’s inconceivable why combined sewers continue to be installed in this modern area. Local leaders & experts know that combined sewers are fundamental failures of proper stormwater management. Equally puzzling is the ongoing devotion of additional millions of public dollars to expand / repair an equally flawed deep tunnel system which hasn’t worked properly for the last decade. Is it purely politics that prevent execution of the correct solution?

    Surely the per-project cost & complexity cannot be so great as to prevent spot installations of separate storm & sanitary sewer systems as roadwork is completed. Municipalities could slowly be implementing separate systems & tying them together as time goes on. It is long past the ‘right’ time to make this fundamental change.

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