Pontiac Tribune 

Heavy Rains Forcing Tough Decisions For Milwaukee River

Wisconsin (PT) – Heavy rainfall blanketed Wisconsin as August ended, including Milwaukee. Some areas were overwhelmed after 9 inches of rain fell over a single weekend. Widespread flooding offered Wisconsinites a glimpse into the Badger State’s damper future. For Milwaukee, this creates a slew of new flood management. Especially with more rains on their way, according to recent forecasts.

The Milwaukee Metro Sewage District (MMSD) has been forced to release sewage overflow into the Milwaukee river five times this year. “I wouldn’t call it ‘run of the mill’”, said MMSD’s media contact Bill Graffin in a phone call. MMSD hadn’t had any overflows in over 22 months. Meaning each of those 5 overflow events have happened over just three months.

Graffin explains Milwaukee County is only allowed six overflows per year. If that limit were reached, it would be in the hands of county regulators as to what happens next. “You can look around the state and see how much flooding and heart ache is out there.”

Graffin contextualized what nine inches of rainfall over a weekend really translates to. “Even one inch over our surface area”, he told Pontiac Tribune, “that’s 7 billion gallons of water.” Multiply that by nine, over just a couple days, and the scale of those late August storms becomes clear. Graffin also provided a 2018 map of precipitation across Milwaukee County. It shows some parts of northern Milwaukee got 10+ inches of precipitation from August 17th-September 6th.

A map of precipitation across Wisconsin in recent months.

Managing all that water is a community effort, Graffin stressed. Devising ways to manage water flow, while also mitigating how much ends up in the sewage system is critical. The County’s goal is to have zero homes and businesses within the 100 year flood plane by 2035. Unfortunately, what MMSD can do is ultimately dictated by budget. “We can’t do it alone… We need other people to be part of the solution.”

It’s never with a light conscience that MMSD authorizes a sewage overflow. The organization must not only protect homes from flooding, but also the multi-billion dollar investment that is Milwaukee’s sewage and water system.

In the event sewage is released into the river, MMSD is required to monitor the river environment with contamination tests. Bill Graffin also noted Lake Michigan’s hostility to bacteria due to it’s cold temperature. Some Milwaukee residents, however, are still concerned the river and lake aren’t being adequately protected. Like Shannon Solan-Spice, a member of the Water Protectors of Milwaukee. The environmental activist group formed after the 2016 Dakota Access Pipeline resistance.

“The truth of it is that we need to be having a larger discussion about Lake Michigan.” Says Solan-Spice. “We need to be having a discussion about granting the Great Lakes their personal sovereignty.” In recent years, several countries including Bangladesh and New Zealand have afforded individual rivers the same rights as a person. “We need to be better caregivers” says Solan-Spice. “It seems criminal to be treating this resource this way.”

She wonders if oversight and care for the river and lake is keeping pace with increased development in Milwaukee. “They’re not protecting the thing they’re trying to market.” She uses to word “eco-cide” to make the consequences of polluting valuable resources like the lake and river really sink in. “This is where we are getting our drinking water”.

Federal and state politics have created a precarious situation for Lake Michigan and the rest of the Great Lakes. President Donald Trump imposed deep cuts to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative in 2017, and shifted the burden to local governments. Governor Scott Walker’s offering of lake water and wetlands for the Foxxcon deal compounds the ecological pressure. Nestle, the international bottled water behemoth, also uses vast quantities of Lake Michigan’s water. While moving to privatize the water, Nestle’s CEO suggests that believing water is a human right is extreme.

The intense rains are also part of an even larger issue than the impact overflows have on the lake. These storms which hit Milwaukee, Madison, and much of Wisconsin were not an anomaly. Increased rainfall events has been recorded throughout Wisconsin recently. The state’s climate is becoming wetter, and more humid.

Shannon Solan-Spice says people need to be “awakened to the fact that the seasons are changing. If people are not awake to the forest fires on the west coast and the droughts and the floods, where are they?” Solan-Spice also participated in the People’s Climate March on September 8th. The march was a global action, taking place in numerous cities nationwide, and many more internationally.

Climate Change is something the Milwaukee Metro Sewage District also takes into account. “We are no doubt seeing an increase in extreme storms from a rainfall standpoint.” Says Bill Graffin. “We look at that and are studying it to see how we can protect the multi-billion dollar investments that have been made in the regional sewer system, but also protect our customers and keep water from backing up into their basements.”

It’s a taxing job void of glamour. “We’re tired, we’re not happy with what has had to occur. But our number one priority during a storm is to keep sewage out of people’s basements. And that’s a bigger health threat than having the over flows. And that’s the only way you can reduce the risk of basement back ups is to have a sewer overflow. So we’re doing the best we can to make sure the system is prepared for the next storm.”

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