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The Evolution of Milwaukee’s Sewer System On the origin of feces

Milwaukee Color

Sep. 16, 2009
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The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) has been getting a lot of shit lately for permitting overflows of more than a billion gallons of sewage and storm water during thunderstorms. To their credit, the public servants faced with the monumental task of regulating the disposal of our waste, in all its forms, have done a lot of things right. Milwaukee has evolved since it was chartered in 1846, a time when the Kinnickinnic, Menomonee and Milwaukee rivers were the city’s only sewers.

The rivers caught all the refuse generated by the meatpacking plants, breweries, distilleries, flour mills, sawmills, tanneries, foundries and factories that lined their banks. Attracted by employment opportunities made available by these industries, immigrants flooded the city, swelling the city’s population from 45,246 in 1860 to 204,468 in 1890, according to The Making of Milwaukeeby John Gurda. In only 30 years, the number of people in Milwaukee more than quadrupled and the city wasn’t outfitted to accommodate them. Faced with contaminated groundwater, the city began work on a municipal sewer system in 1869. These sewers collected and conveyed storm water and wastewater to the nearest river, where they discharged their loads. According to Gurda, the city attempted to solve the groundwater problem five years later by using a pumphouse located at the foot of North Avenue to draw lake water through an offshore intake and into a reservoir in Kilbourn Park. From there, gravity delivered it to homes and businesses.

Because of its role as the city’s primary latrine, the Milwaukee River was a “currentless and yellowish murky stream, with water like oil and an odor combined of the effluvia of a hundred sewers” by the 1870s. Milwaukee, now concerned about its polluted river water, began work on a network of lines that intercepted liquid filth before it reached the rivers, and directed it to a station on Jones Island, where it was pumped into Lake Michigan.

The quality of the river’s water worsened, so the city dug an enormous tunnel from the lake to the North Avenue dam that flushed lake water into the stagnant Milwaukee River at a rate of 500 million gallons a day—and right into Lake Michigan, the source of Milwaukee’s drinking water. Cue foreboding music: the typhoid scare of 1909. A year later, Milwaukee chose to chlorinate its lake water.

The Sewerage Commission of the city of Milwaukee was established in 1913, and the formidable job of designing and constructing a complete disposal and treatment system began. When Milwaukee’s present sewage treatment plant on Jones Island went into operation in 1925, wastewater was cleaned by allowing microorganisms to feed on its pollutants. The dried sewage sludge was then sold as a fertilizer called Milorganite.

The Jones Island Wastewater Treatment Plant expanded in 1934 and in 1952, and the South Shore Wastewater Treatment Plant in Oak Creek opened in the late-’60s. In 1977, the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District created a farsighted plan, the Milwaukee Water Pollution Abatement Program, to repair and expand the entire metropolitan area wastewater conveyance and treatment system. Cornerstone to the program was the Deep Tunnel System: more than 19 miles of tunnel dug 300 feet underground to trap sewer overflows.

The signs posted at strategic points on the river and near the lakeshore warning of hazardous overflows are evidence that Milwaukee’s sewer system still has essential strides to make. Serving 1.1 million customers in 28 communities within 411 square miles, however, MMSD has proven it can take a lot of shit and still continue to evolve.

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