By DANIELLE KAEDING
Wisconsin Public Radio
Conner Andrews has swum in Lake Michigan since his childhood days vacationing in Door County.
“It was always a huge deal for me to go to the beach and have fun there and enjoy the waves,” said Andrews, a Nashotah resident and former collegiate swimmer.
These days he gets the same feeling swimming at Milwaukee-area beaches. But he has to pick his waters and timing wisely — to avoid wading into a contaminated stew of pollutants, including bacteria-laden stormwater and sewage flowing into local waterways.
Parts of the Milwaukee area rely on a combined sewer system to collect stormwater and sewage for treatment. But heavy rains can overwhelm the sewers, sending untreated waste into local rivers and Lake Michigan.
The wastewater flows intensified in 2018, even as the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District was spending millions on a plan to eliminate overflows by 2035, state data show.
In 2018, the agency overseeing Milwaukee’s system, which serves 1.1 million people and 28 communities, saw six combined-sewer overflows — the most since 1999. Those overflows sent 1.2 billion gallons of stormwater and untreated sewage into rivers, canals and a stream that drain into Lake Michigan.
Milwaukee’s latest discharges come after the sewerage district spent $2.3 billion on pollution abatement in the 1980s and ‘90s, building what is now a 28.5-mile tunnel system to cut overflows into Lake Michigan.
The city is not alone in grappling with overflows.
In 2018, Wisconsin saw its most overflows since 2010, Department of Natural Resources data show.
Experts say overflows plague many cities near the Great Lakes, a drinking-water source for 48 million people in the United States and Canada.
Behind the increases is intensifying rainfall driven by climate change.
“We’re seeing more extreme storms across the Great Lakes region, and you’ve got a recipe for some serious problems,” said Joel Brammeier, president and CEO of the nonprofit Alliance for the Great Lakes.
Andrews has sought to draw attention to Milwaukee’s pollution by organizing the Cream City Classic, in which contestants swim a 1.5-mile length of the Milwaukee River. Organizers held the first race in August 2018, specifically choosing a time when heavy rainfall was thought to be less likely.
Rains have not thwarted the race in its first two years, but Andrews said he would not be surprised if that happens one day. Less than three weeks after the 2018 race, for instance, intense rainfall sent nearly 395 million gallons of stormwater and sewage into the Milwaukee River and other local waters.
Sewage surge follows decades of progress
Wisconsin’s largest city, Milwaukee has a sewage system that leads the state in wastewater releases. In 2018, it discharged more than eight times more waste than systems in the rest of the state combined, according to DNR data.
Milwaukee’s latest sewage surge into Lake Michigan follows decades of progress in combatting overflows.
About 8 to 9 billion gallons once overflowed from Milwaukee’s combined sewer system each year. That was before the sewerage district started building its Deep Tunnel in the 1980s, a 521-million gallon storage system 300 feet underground that collects sewage and stormwater until it can be treated and discharged.
The tunnel, built in three phases, greatly reduced overflows after 1994, the first full year its initial 19.4-mile phase went into service. It helps the district treat more than 98 percent of its wastewater in a typical year, keeping at least 128 billion gallons of polluted water out of Lake Michigan.
But increasingly heavy rains are now adding stress to the city’s sewer system.
The Milwaukee sewerage district’s two wastewater plants collectively treat up to 600 million gallons of stormwater and sewage a day. But just one inch of rain in the district’s 411 square-mile service area brings more than 7 billion gallons of water.
“It’s when you get two inches of rain in 20 minutes that it overwhelms the sewer system,” said Bill Graffin, district spokesman.
Steve Vavrus, senior scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Nelson Institute Center for Climatic Research, said climate change is driving Wisconsin’s record rainfall. Last year was the wettest in the state’s recorded history, and 2018 was third-wettest, according to data from the Midwestern Regional Climate Center.
Excluding Milwaukee, Wisconsin cities in 2018 discharged 150 million gallons of sewage and stormwater. That was the highest volume since 2010, the fifth-wettest year on record.
By October 2019, 359 million gallons overflowed from those places’ systems, and Milwaukee discharged more than 500 million gallons into waterways. That happened even as the Milwaukee district captured and cleaned a record 85.6 billion gallons of water.
Milwaukee has spent $508 million in treatment improvements and monitoring to prevent a future outbreak. But other communities remain vulnerable to pollution caused by heavy rains and runoff.
In a study from 2018, McLellan and other researchers found that gastrointestinal pathogens are “widespread in urban waterways following rainfall and 10-fold higher following (combined sewer overflows).”
Overwhelming old systems
In 2012, Wisconsin’s roughly 600 publicly owned wastewater systems reported needing $6.3 billion in additional spending to meet federal water-quality goals — nearly half for pipeline construction or repairs and managing stormwater.
That includes Ashland. More than one-third of its sewer pipes are more than 50 years old, and nearly half are past their useful life, said John Butler, the city’s public works director.
Ashland’s wastewater treatment plant can handle up to 2,700 gallons per minute. But heavy rain events can increase flows 12-fold, overwhelming the plant. More than 6 inches of rain hit Ashland during Father’s Day weekend 2018, sending 15 million gallons of wastewater into Lake Superior.
Ashland’s overflows happen when water seeps into cracked pipes or into connections between the stormwater and sanitary sewer systems, Butler said.
Since 1991, the DNR has awarded more than $4.6 billion in loans and assistance for roughly 1,000 sewage and stormwater projects. Of that money, about 30 percent has gone to Milwaukee, according to the state Legislative Fiscal Bureau.
Jim Ritchie, DNR environmental loan section chief, said funding requests are only increasing.
About 96 percent of U.S. spending on water and wastewater projects comes from state and local governments, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The federal government chipped in billions for water and wastewater programs in the 2019 fiscal year, but its investment has declined in recent years amid competing priorities in Washington.
Local governments are forging ahead with their own limited resources.
Beginning next year, Ashland plans to spend about $600,000 annually for deferred upkeep while also seeking state loans, Butler said. A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency grant also helped the city install a grassy channel at Maslowski Beach designed to capture and treat stormwater.
Along Lake Michigan, the Milwaukee sewerage district is pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into flood control along watersheds. It set a goal of zero overflows by 2035 by adding 740 million gallons of stormwater storage.
The district estimates it will cost at least $1.3 billion to install green roofs, rain gardens and other projects to capture water across its service area.
“We really live by the mantra that every drop counts,” said Kevin Shafer, the district’s executive director.
The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (wisconsinwatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, PBS Wisconsin, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.
The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (wisconsinwatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, PBS Wisconsin, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates