Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District Hits Back Against Mother Nature

Milwaukee’s private property I&I pilot project will be a permanent fixture.

Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District Hits Back Against Mother Nature

Workers use a Mud Dog vacuum excavator by Super Products during a lateral CIPP repair job in one of Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District’s residential areas.

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On a Saturday afternoon in July of 2010, while watching his son’s tennis lesson, Kevin Shafer, executive director of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, had an epiphany. 

Mother Nature had been hitting his city hard with three years of heavy rainfall. During that July alone, the area had two back-to-back storms that exceeded a 100-year rain event. According to the National Weather Service, 8.98 inches of rain fell across the 411 square miles of the district’s service area between July 22-24 alone — an estimated 63 billion gallons of water.

As the on-court volley intensified, Shafer says the thought suddenly occurred to him: “We’re getting hit at, but we’re not hitting back.”

To understand this story, you must go back to the 1970s and ’80s when the district, Milwaukee County communities and the outlying suburbs were involved in a heated political battle, dubbed the “Sewer Wars.” The conflict centered around who would pay for a deep tunnel project to help reduce the frequency and volume of sanitary sewer overflows and combined sewer overflows.

The district doesn’t just manage the wastewater for Milwaukee County. It captures rain and wastewater, cleaning it for 28 communities, totaling about 1.1 million people. However, each of the 28 municipalities owns and operates its sanitary sewer system. As a result of the distrust created by those Sewer Wars, the municipalities complained to their state representatives, and legislation was passed that basically said the district must keep its hands off the local systems. 

That environment of mistrust still existed decades later when Shafer — who at the time was head engineer for the district — felt there were far too many overflows and basement backups. He wondered where all that water could be coming from, and that’s when he began his on-the-job education on inflow and infiltration.

An invisible enemy

Shafer conducted sanitary sewer evaluation studies, looking for leaks and bad pipes; and in 1999, Shafer started talking to the municipalities about the I&I problem. That’s when they reminded him that, per the law, the district couldn’t touch the local systems. Not even to improve them.

The district decided to work on what they could fix and began upgrading its own sewers, treatment plants and pump stations. A few years later, Shafer became the district’s executive director, and that brings us back around to that fateful tennis lesson and his decision to start hitting back.

Shafer called his legal counsel and his head engineer into the office the next day, a Sunday, and said, “We’re going to do something about this I&I.” Together they reviewed the law and discovered their loophole. The law only prevented them from having any involvement with the municipality’s sewer system. It said nothing about private property. Shafer says this meant they could simply leapfrog over the towns and address private property infiltration. They did not waste any time before putting together a plan.

“In 2010, we announced the 10-year Private Property Inflow and Infiltration (PPII) Program and kicked it off with a $50 million investment, broken down to $5 million per year over 10 years,” Shafer says.

That 10-year pilot program is now a decade old, but Shafer says he has no intention of ending it this year.

That annual $5 million comes out of the district’s capital budget, which is based on equalized value property tax. Of course, just like during the Sewer Wars, each suburb didn’t want its money to go to another suburb. They wanted their dollars spent on their municipalities. So, the district decided on a structure that would return each town’s equalized value percentage back to them. 

For example, if a municipality contributes 10% of the overall district capital budget, that municipality would receive 10% of the annual district $5 million PPII program budget. 

“It’s kind of like smearing peanut butter over the entire region. It’s a constant depth, but you’re not always hitting the areas that need it the most. That’s where we’re at now, but we got the program going, which at the time was important.”

There was much discussion on the roles and responsibilities of each entity, especially to determine how those responsibilities would be split between the district and the municipalities. Ultimately, significant autonomy and decision-making responsibility were placed with the towns since the homeowners are technically their customers.

One example is that the district felt strongly that a resident cost share should be included to stretch the limited budget and give the homeowner responsibility for the work. Many municipalities were opposed to having any such cost implications for homeowners. The district conceded, and the program currently has no cost share requirement. 

Doing the work

Once Shafer’s plan was approved, the district started gearing up to help the neighborhoods where private property was the suspected source of high flow rates. While municipalities had autonomy and decision-making responsibility, the district had control over what projects got funding. Therefore, municipalities were required to submit a work plan to the district. 

Those work plans included solutions such as sump pump installations and rainspout work, but the most prominent issues were much-needed lateral repairs and replacements, as well as foundation drain disconnects. 

Sump pumps turned out to be a problem at times. There were instances in which the property owner’s electrical system couldn’t handle the pump, but that was often determined after digging the pit and installing the pump. That required electricians to make updates and caused the price to go way up. In those cases, the district talked with the property owner about sharing the costs. 

Lateral issues turned out to be easier to resolve than foundation repairs, if only because they didn’t require access to the interior of the property. For >span class="s4">10 years, 8,000 laterals were rehabbed. Only about 100 lines were entirely replaced. 

Jerome Flogel, senior project manager of the PPII Program, says that one important lesson learned during the last 10 years is that municipalities need a better understanding of the situation before getting into these projects. CIPP lining was the overwhelming choice of all the municipalities, but in many cases, it turned out to be the wrong choice due to the level of damage and disrepair in the laterals. They are now exploring more invasive techniques such as pipe bursting and doing more replacements.

“One municipality did a lot of pressure grouting and pushed the limits of how far up the lateral they could get, but the overall I&I reduction and longevity of the benefit is yet to be determined,” Flogel says.  

The program is still young, and both Flogel and Shafer admitted going through a steep learning curve. “We’ve learned enough from working on private property to know that problems could be worse than what we had. There have been some close calls,” Flogel says.

A permanent fixture

As they move from the pilot stage to an ongoing program, they intend to be more proactive in preventing significant problems. Moving forward, the district will be providing more consulting assistance and instruction to the municipalities, as well as conducting a closer review of work plans before any contracts are signed.  

“We have a lot of flowmeters so that we, as a district, know where the water is coming from and have rules in place for goals regarding peak flow,” Flogel says. “We look at where they are proposing to do the work, and we make sure they prioritize areas with problems.”

While some municipalities were surprised they had significant flow problems, Flogel says it wasn’t a shock to him. “No one hasn’t needed the money,” Flogel says. “Anyone who has looked for it found work.”

The district is also now recommending more dye testing and CCTV to get a good picture of the core problems. That information will help avoid situations where a municipality puts out a contract before understanding the state of deterioration or conditions, which complicates matters and results in costly change orders. 

While the municipalities will continue to be responsible for putting out the contracts to do the work, the district will now have a preapproval process for contractors and products. To receive reimbursement, municipalities will have to use contractors and methods on an approved list. There will also be terms in place for contractors who want to remain on the list. 

“Standard warranties for completed rehab work will have to be established as one strategy to reduce issues down the road,” Flogel says. 

The district recognizes there is quite a bit of emerging technology, and those products and methods are not being used in their market. They hope the contractor approval process will help them attract those contractors specializing in these cutting-edge, but proven methods. 

The power of planning

Flogel’s advice to other organizations looking to undertake a significant new project of the district’s PPII Program’s size and scope is to define your objectives clearly. That is a challenge when you’re trying to get 28 different municipalities and elected officials on the same page. However, without those objectives in place, you have no way of knowing what exactly you are accomplishing. 

“You can spend a lot of money and then look at your flowmeters and say, ‘We’re not getting anywhere.’ You want to have metrics in place to measure your success. You need to be able to show what you did 10 years down the road,” Flogel says.

However, the district’s metrics are not just there to prove a success. Parameters are there to guide them through every project and every step forward. Once they have the data in front of them, they will know what they must do better the next time. 

Despite a few setbacks, Shafer is pleased with the outcome so far. Individual neighborhoods are seeing results immediately downstream from where the work has been done. But for him, success is measured by improvements in flow reductions at the plant and overflow reductions. He says it is still hard to judge the overall impact. 

“It’s going to be a continuous program,” he says. “We’ll get to the end, and then we’ll start over again. And then we’ll just keep going.”

While Shafer may not have the results he’s looking for to declare the program a success just yet, others feel differently. 

Shafer was able to convince his adversaries of the political capital they would gain by helping their residents without raising taxes to pay for it while also doing their part to improve the environment. That was enticing enough to get just about everyone behind the program. Shafer says even his most vocal opponent is now his biggest supporter. 


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