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After the Deluge

Aug. 4, 2010
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After people’s lives—and their basements—have been deluged with floodwaters, nothing makes them madder than not having someone to be mad at.

Kris Kristofferson wrote: “Everybody’s gotta have somebody to look down on … Someone doin’ somethin’ dirty decent folks can frown on. If you can’t find nobody else, then help yourself to me.”

That song could be played pretty much continuously these days around the offices of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD).

Right-wing radio talk shows are not usually known for their righteous indignation over environmental issues except to belittle people who want to preserve the Earth. But they have long made an exception to attack MMSD every time Milwaukee sewers overflow and release untreated wastewater into Lake Michigan.

You can imagine how apoplectic all those conservative talkers were after the recent flash flood that destroyed 19 Milwaukee homes, backed up sewage and water into thousands of area basements and released 2.1 billion gallons of untreated sewer water into the lake.

Like most anti-government outrage these days, all the spluttering didn’t include a single proposal for how our political leaders should be spending the taxpayers’ money to solve the problem.

When you don’t believe in government, forcing everybody to pay for sewage treatment is just socialism.

What we heard, instead, were relentless attacks on MMSD’s 17-year-old Deep Tunnel project that holds more than 520 million gallons of sewage underground during intense flooding to be treated later when facilities are able to handle it.

It’s a curious target. No one seriously concerned about sewage being released into Lake Michigan would want the Deep Tunnel not to be doing its job and another half-billion gallons of sewage going directly into the lake.

But no one who saw the YouTube videos of college-age surfers challenging “Shorewood Rapids” up to their necks could possibly think any sewerage district anywhere could tax its citizens enough to handle problem-free the biblical flooding of the recent storm.

The truth is before the construction of the Deep Tunnel, Milwaukee-area sanitary and storm sewers overflowed 50 to 60 times a year into rivers and the lake.

Since the Deep Tunnel began operation, the combined sewers have overflowed an average of 2.6 times a year.

Fecal contamination of our water is dramatically reduced.

In 1975, overflows contributed 49% of the annual volume of fecal coliform bacteria (just as bad as it sounds) in Milwaukee’s rivers and harbor. By 2000, those overflows you hear so much about were contributing only 7% of such bacteria to the waterways.

Forcing the Issue

So Milwaukee Mayor Henry Maier and those Common Councils of yore must have been real visionaries to build that Deep Tunnel, huh? Right. And clapping your hands together will save little Tinkerbell’s life.

Politics back in the 1970s worked pretty much the same as it does now. There was only one reason why Milwaukee embarked upon construction of the Deep Tunnel, the most expensive public works project in its history.

The state of Illinois sued Milwaukee in federal court in the ’70s to stop MMSD’s repeated sewage overflows into Lake Michigan. If you were located south of Milwaukee on the lake, you would have done the same thing.

Despite everything you hear about those awful lawyers who file lawsuits over every little befouling of the world’s largest freshwater supply, sometimes the only way you can get politicians to do the right thing is under court order.

Damn that activist federal judge who forced Milwaukee to spend $4 billion in taxes to build a Deep Tunnel that reduced fecal contamination of Lake Michigan by 85%!

A Canadian environmental group a few years ago ranked Milwaukee first among all major cities on the Great Lakes in efforts to reduce sewer overflows.

With all the outrage talk radio attempted to whip up over basement backups and sewage in our water source, not a single local politician has stepped up to volunteer to set a new record for the most expensive public works project in Milwaukee history.

That includes gubernatorial candidates Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker.

MMSD estimates it would cost $6 billion or more to increase the storage capacity of the Deep Tunnel by 1.7 billion gallons. That would get sewer overflows closer to zero, but not really improve water quality by much.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be spending more to prevent sewer backups, especially in older areas of the city where entire neighborhoods are devastated repeatedly.

But just hating government doesn’t feed the bulldog. At a time when politicians are trying to outdo each other on cutting taxes, we need an outraged public demanding more spending to upgrade the deteriorating infrastructure of an aging sewer system.

If we let politicians off the hook on that one, the only folks we should be mad at are ourselves. 


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