The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District announced Friday that 200.6 million gallons of raw sewage was dumped into Lake Michigan over a 13-hour span between Sept. 25 and 26. The action came after heavy rains caused an overflow in the district's combined sewer systems.
Bill Graffin, an MMSD spokesman, said on Sept. 25, 3.94 inches of rain fell in Milwaukee. The heavy rains filled the sewer systems beyond the amount of water and sewage that could be effectively treated. He said this was 2005's first raw sewage dumping.
The overflow occurred in the combined sewer system that carries both storm water and raw sewage, Graffin said. Since the system was established in 1994, MMSD has dumped into the lake 1 to 2 billion gallons of overflow annually, Graffin said.
"Before the deep tunnel system, MMSD would experience 8 to 9 billion gallons of overflow each year," he said. "That number has been reduced significantly."
According to MMSD, the deep tunnel system, designed to prevent overflows, can store up to 405 million gallons of excess rainwater and sewage collected from the combined sewer area as well as sewage collected from the separated strictly sanitary sewer line. The 19.4-mile-long tunnel system is built 300 feet below ground and is 32 feet in diameter at its largest points.
On Friday, MMSD said it treated approximately 1.5 billion gallons of wastewater and rain between Sept. 25 and 26. However, power surges knocked out equipment at the Jones Island Wastewater Treatment Plant, 700 E. Jones St., limiting the amount of wastewater that could be treated from the deep tunnel system. The equipment later required emergency repairs.
Such large dumpings of wastewater are not entirely rare. In May 2004, heavy rains caused MMSD to dump 1.7 billion gallons into Lake Michigan, Graffin said.
The sewer district is working on improving its system, Graffin said. The district has already spent $3 billion for previous improvements and is currently working on a $900 million project to reduce overflow. The project will be completed by 2010, he added.
"We're working on another multimillion dollar project to further improve and protect our waterways," Graffin said.
According to Graffin, state and federal permits allow the district to dump from the combined sewers up to six times a year. This is the first dumping of 2005.
Lynn Broaddus, executive director of Friends of Milwaukee's Rivers — a water protection advocacy group — said the recent dumping could have been prevented.
"The treatment plants were not anywhere near capacity and were not used the best way possible," Broaddus said.
According to Broaddus, dumping has occurred multiple times because there is no viable backup system.
"They have to be prepared and have people who can deal with emergencies like this weekend," she said. "This was a case of poor planning and poor use of facilities that taxpayers' money has paid for."
Broaddus said a staff member from her group went to the Kinnickinnic River on Sept. 27 to test the water and developed a rash similar to the rashes people in New Orleans developed after wading in the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina, which have been reported to contain raw sewage.
"It just goes to show what kind of things are floating in that water," Broaddus said.
Milwaukee's sewage treatment program differs from Chicago in that treated sewage is dumped into the lake while in Chicago, sewage is dumped into a sanitary canal and carried away from the lake.
This article was published in The Marquette Tribune on October 4, 2005.