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Governor Evers has declared 2019 as the year of clean drinking water, rightfully so, based on the problems that our State faces. Quoting January 25, 2019, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel story, "The troubles range from the potential health impacts of lead pipes in older homes — including tens of thousands of homes in Milwaukee — too polluted wells in rural areas and emerging chemical contaminants that are leaching into groundwater." I totally concur that we need to make sure that our clean water investments target the sources that pose the greatest threat to public health. Sewer overflows in the Milwaukee region are NOT the greatest threat.
Sewer overflows notably were not mentioned in the news story. That is because there has already been a huge investment in reducing this pollution source as a risk to public health.
Thanks to the 1972 Clean Water Act, a nudge from Illinois, and strong leadership by the State, the Milwaukee region initiated a program to reduce overflows. Over $4 billion dollars of investment and 47 years later, the needle has moved from averaging over 50 sewer overflows to just over two overflows per year. It should be noted that the remaining overflows are almost entirely combined sewer overflows (CSO), which are not just sewage, but mostly stormwater.
Looking at this through a regulatory lens, the Federal government understands that, while CSO’s are bad, they do not pose as significant a risk to public health if they can be managed at or below certain levels. These regulated levels require CSO’s to be held to six or fewer occurrences per year or less than 15% of the annual flow treated at a wastewater utility. The Milwaukee region has never violated these limits since 1994.
Our clean water investment resulted in a huge reduction in CSO’s and a significant improvement in the health of our rivers. This was confirmed by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2018 when they approved a comprehensive water quality analysis of the Milwaukee region’s rivers called the total maximum daily load study. Analyzing the results of this study and applying those results to the rainfall and river flow events we experienced in 2018, we can use this science to target where we need to invest in the future. In 2018, CSO’s accounted for less than 5% of the phosphorus and suspended solids entering the rivers. These two pollutants are causes for the algae blooms in our lakes and are good indicators of bacteria in our waterways. Where is the remaining 95% of these pollutants coming from? The EPA identified stormwater runoff from urban and agricultural land as the largest sources.
Contrary to what we have learned over the years from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, SEWRPC, the University of Wisconsin, and other State and Federal researchers, I still hear that the CSO’s in Milwaukee are the biggest source of pollution in the State. This also is simply NOT true. Do we want to spend millions of dollars to address less than 5% of the problem? All these agencies know where we should be investing in water infrastructure. We should listen and invest wisely.