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Home / 2017 Newsmakers of the Year / Shafer concentrates on innovation as he drives MMSD forward

Shafer concentrates on innovation as he drives MMSD forward

Public Official of the Year - Kevin Shafer, Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

Public Official of the Year –
Kevin Shafer, Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

Kevin Shafer prefers it when the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District operates in the background, providing water-reclamation and flood-management services to 28 municipalities.

“People do not pay much attention to us unless there is a wastewater overflow into Lake Michigan,” said Shafer, who has been executive director of MMSD since 2002.

“We are focused on the whole watershed … we look at how we can improve surface water management throughout the area,” he said. “People see projects around the area and don’t realize how many are MMSD-led.”

The Deep Tunnel is MMSD’s best-known project. When Shafer took over the reins at MMSD, the regional government authority was faced with lawsuits over allegations that it had violated laws governing sanitary-sewer overflows. Various municipalities were meanwhile fighting in court over who was going to pay for the $3 billion tunnel project.

Shafer responded by seeking to win the trust of different stakeholders, encouraging open communication and looking for ways to improve MMSD’s operations.

“We’re involved in a continual process of making what we do better,” he said. “We are also looking for ways to be innovative and to work with others to improve water quality.”

Shafer encouraged innovation at MMSD. He pushed employees to always be looking for ways to make the operation better, said Karen Sands, MMSD director of sustainability.

“I’ve worked for Kevin for a long time because I admire his understated, but strategic leadership style,” she said. “Kevin has a talent for making audacious goals seem like they are doable, and then giving his staff space to make them happen.”

At MMSD, Shafer has headed up various environmental initiatives. As a result, the authority now has incentives in place to encourage building owners to make use of either green roofs or blue roofs (which act as a retention pond that slowly releases water following a big storm.) It also offers rain barrels at a discount and various incentives to property owners who use porous concrete.

Separately, MMSD will buy up underused property in places where the local population is expected to increase at a faster-than-average pace and then plant trees, wetlands and grasses to absorb water.

“All of those methods help slow down how quickly rainwater enters the system, which decreases the likelihood of overflows,” Shafer said. “Everything we do is designed to protect our waterways and to make the system more sustainable.”

At least one of Shafer’s initiatives has nothing to do with water. He has contributed to the construction of a pipeline that now brings methane from a landfill in Muskego to the Jones Island Water

Reclamation Facility. There the gas powers three turbines, generating electricity for MMSD and lowering utility costs.

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