The Remarkable Impact of the Deep Tunnel
Once widely maligned, the project was the key to transforming the Milwaukee River.
This week the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published an excellent series, “Rivers Reborn,” on the impact of having cleaner rivers in the Greater Milwaukee region. A story by Tom Daykin noted that “the total fair market value of riverfront properties between North Ave. and the Milwaukee harbor increased by nearly 150% from 2001 through 2013…That added more than $520 million in value.” During that same period, he noted, the total value of all Milwaukee properties increased by just 44 percent.
The creation of the RiverWalk under Mayor John Norquist was a key factor in that development, but it would have been for naught if the once filthy river hadn’t first been cleaned up. And the number one factor transforming the river, as a sidebar written by JS environmental reporter Don Behm concluded, was the building of the Deep Tunnel. “After the tunnel was completed, there were immediate gains in water quality in the waterways flowing through central Milwaukee… At the time, combined sanitary and storm sewers in central Milwaukee and eastern Shorewood overflowed each time more than one-quarter of an inch of rain fell — up to 60 times a year. The overflows sent sewage with heavy loads of bacteria into the rivers.” But after the Deep Tunnel was built the sewer overflows dropped from nearly 60 a year to an average of 2.4 overflows, Behm notes.
A 2007 study with data from the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission showed that prior to the Deep Tunnel’s creation, “point pollution” mostly caused by sewer overflows (and partly by industrial discharges) was the main cause of regional water pollution, but after the Deep Tunnel, point pollution dropped to causing just 9 percent of the problem. Non-point pollution had now become the major, remaining source of pollution, causing about 90 percent of the region’s problems. These are mostly “pollutants washed off the landscape in storms,” as Behm writes, including “bacteria from birds and animals, dirt and salt from streets and parking lots, vehicle fluids, fertilizers and pesticides.”
Such non-point pollution is tougher to reduce because it greatly depends on residents in the region changing their behavior, reducing their use of lawn and garden fertilizers, salt on sidewalks and driveways, or cars that leak oil and other fluids, all of which gets swept into the rivers during rainstorms. Residents can also reduce the amount of storm water runoff by using rain barrels or installing permeable pavement.
When in fact it was a nationally notable success. “Most cities would kill to have the system Milwaukee has. I know I would,” said Don Theiler, then head of the King County Wastewater Treatment Division in Seattle, in a 2007 interview for a Milwaukee Magazine story I wrote.
But Sykes and Belling couldn’t have propagated their wildly inaccurate message if not for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which for many years ran screaming front-page headlines about sewage being dumped into the lake, without ever making it clear how rare this was — or how much the situation had changed in Milwaukee. In my Milwaukee Magazine column, I had quotes from suburban officials blasting the JS and talk radio for misleading the public.
Professors Erika T. Jensen and Sandra L. McLellan of the highly touted UW-Milwaukee Great Lakes WATER Institute did a study of media coverage of beach closings, and found that over a five-year period, the Journal Sentinel did 19 stories blaming sewer overflows for bacterial contamination of beaches. Not one was true, they concluded. Instead the bacteria came from storm water contaminated with fecal waste from pets and wildlife, particularly sea gulls.
McLellan told me that when she gave talks in town about the true cause of beach closings, audiences overwhelmingly — and wrongly — believed sewer overflows were the culprit. As a Journal Sentinel editorial in 2007 noted, “Due to the constant and often uninformed sniping by talk radio and other critics, many people have mistakenly come to think of the tunnel system as a colossal, obscenely expensive public works failure.”
The editorial, naturally, left out the impact of the newspaper’s own stories. But by then, the paper had begun to make an about-face. The reign of terror against the MMSD, which I suspect was pushed by the newspaper’s managing editor George Stanley, had ended. Behm was assigned to cover the MMSD and all those stories wrongly blaming beach closings on the MMSD ended. However, the current series consigned Behm’s take on the Deep Tunnel’s impact to a small sidebar — clearly an editor’s decision.
Still, the series will definitely help the community understand what is really going on. But there is still a lot of damage to undo. I suspect a survey of regional residents would show many still believe — wrongly — that the Deep Tunnel is a failure and that it — rather than day-to-day decisions by residents — is a major cause of the area’s remaining water pollution. And it’s hard to solve a problem if you don’t understand the true cause of it.
Deep Tunnel Construction