U.S. Water News Online
MILWAUKEE -- A decade ago Milwaukee opened a $2.8 billion
deep tunnel sewer system to help eliminate sewage releases into Lake
Michigan, the city's source of drinking water.
But within two weeks this year the city and some suburbs dumped
4.6 billion gallons of untreated sewage after heavy rains, angering
residents, environmentalists and Milwaukee's big-city neighbor to the
Milwaukee's sewage dumping is typical of a problem plaguing other
cities such as Pittsburgh, Atlanta, St. Louis and Detroit.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that as much as
860.5 billion gallons of sewage are dumped a year into rivers and
Many cities have inadequate sewer systems -- some with pipes as
old as a century -- that can't keep up with heavy rains and need
billion-dollar, decades-long updates.
"The basic point is that sewer overflows are a large national
problem and the problem did not develop overnight," said Ben
Grumbles, acting assistant administrator of the EPA's water division.
"It developed over many decades."
Milwaukee also had to dump more than 2 million gallons into
waterways this month, mostly due to sewer error.
Mayor Tom Barrett ordered an audit of the agency that runs the
system, which is working on $900 million of court-ordered sewer
But those upgrades may not persuade 29-year-old Carly Daniels to
take to the lake right away.
She recently watched her 3-year-old son play in the sand at a
Milwaukee beach not far from a sign that indicated good water quality
in Lake Michigan.
"I won't let him go in the water. It's disgusting," she said.
"It's the thought of that much being dumped into the water."
In 1993 Milwaukee opened a 405 million-gallon tunnel system that
holds sewage and water until treatment plants can clean them of
biological contaminants that cause disease and pollutants such as
fertilizers from yard and street runoff.
Sandra McLellan, an assistant scientist at the Great Lakes WATER
Institute in Milwaukee, said both types of contaminants are
worrisome, but scientists are especially concerned about how runoff
affects a lake's ecosystem.
Biological contaminants eventually die, but runoff pollution
doesn't, she said.
Whatever is in Milwaukee's sewage overflows, it's caused Chicago
Mayor Richard Daley to blame the city for recent Illinois beach
"That's a lot of garbage. It's going to float down here," Daley
EPA officials say that's impossible.
Most of Milwaukee's sewage flows to plants through a sanitary
system, which has separate pipes for rain runoff and wastewater from
homes. The rest flows through an older combined sewer, which has one
pipe to capture everything.
Most of what was dumped after heavy May rains was from the
combined sewers, which were designed to overflow so sewage won't back
up into basements. In Milwaukee, it's estimated the combined sewer
overflows contain 15 percent raw sewage.
Of the more than 20,000 sewer systems nationwide, 752 are combined
systems, mostly built before the 1950s. Since then, cities have built
Sometimes sewage is not treated or only partially treated to
remove contaminants but still released, often after heavy rains.
That's when it can become illegal.
A decade ago the EPA issued a rule, made into a law by Congress in
2000, that required cities with combined systems to develop a plan to
prevent overflows. About 34 percent have done so, said Jim Hanlon,
director of EPA's office of wastewater management.
The government generally prohibits sanitary sewer overflows and
allows only a certain number of combined sewer overflows, depending
on the waterway.
Ken Kirk of the Association of Metropolitan Sewerage Agencies
criticized the EPA for not providing enough money for sewer system
He noted the agency used to provide grants for most repairs but
now has a loan program that provides up to 7 percent of repair costs.
The EPA expects to soon finish a report for Congress about sewer
Grumbles said Milwaukee's sewer upgrade was ahead of many others,
although May's overflow indicates a serious problem. The EPA is
Bill Graffin of the Milwaukee-area sewage district said the
storage tunnels have kept 52.4 billion gallons of wastewater out of
rivers and Lake Michigan since 1994.
Building tunnels is only part of the solution, said Paul Schwartz
of the national advocacy group Clean Water Action. He said cities
must consider the environment when laying concrete or constructing
"We have so disrupted water hydrology that if you're a rain drop,
you can't find a place to fall and get into the ground like you are
supposed to," he said.
Return to the
U.S. Water News Archives page
Return to the U.S. Water
Use a comma to separate e-mail addresses:
Hi, I thought you might like to read this article.