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The Tunnel to Nowhere

Local Issues, Environment

One of the mixed blessings of seniority is memory, especially if it's a good one. I clearly remember the debate that led to the $3.2 billion deep tunnel project (budgeted at less than half that). Illinois (or was it Chicago) sued Milwaukee for dumping sewage into its pristine lake, smug in the knowledge of spewing all its sewage into an artificial canal reverse-flowing into the Mississippi and Gulf. Federal court, in an orgasm of environmental consciousness, found for the plaintiff and ordered Milwaukee to "fix it." I'm not sure of the time frame, but I believe it was somewhat vague.

Anyway, Milwaukee essentially had two options. Its sewage-dumping problem essentially derived from a network of combined storm-sanitary sewers on the North Side and Shorewood. Of course, every time it rains a lot, the sewers get overloaded with storm runoff and bury sewage treatment facilities, forcing dumping. So, the problem is directly the result of the combined sewers because folks don't flush toilets any more often in rainstorms.

In the early '90s, the city hired a consultant, Ch2MHill, to evaluate the feasibility of digging a hole under the ground--a "deep tunnel"--versus separating the combined sewers. The conclusion (by CH2MHill) was that a deep tunnel was feasible in that the ground under Milwaukee was largely rock and very stable, so they'd just have to dig the hole. Separating the sewers would be very messy and anyway would not provide CH2MHill with their kind of project. Yes, that's right, folks, if it were a tunnel, they would build it. If it were sewer replacement, they wouldn't.

Let's see. We'll hire a consultant to conduct a feasibility study between two options, both very expensive, one of which the consultant would be the general contractor and the other he would not. Guess what the conclusion would be.

RIGHT! Dig the hole!

So we did, at a much higher cost than estimated because, lo and behold, the subsoil under Milwaukee is shifting sand in significant areas, not "rocky and stable." It took a tragic collapse with significant loss of life--I believe 12 workers--to demonstrate this minor oversight on the part of consultants CH2MHill. This required lining parts of the tunnel with cement, substantially increasing the cost.

The tunnel system was designed and advertised to have sufficient capacity to "handle a 100-year rain." I clearly remember this claim by MMSD officials and others, repeated in several Milwaukee Journal articles on the subject. Seems we've had quite a few 100-year rains since the tunnel went on line in 1994, about 50.

So, now the City of Milwaukee has a tunnel, 19.2 miles long, leading nowhere and definitely without a light at the end. Despite numerous assertions to the contrary, this tunnel is a failure. Its purpose was to reduce sewer overflows to practically none. The figure presently quoted as the original goal is "one or two per year." I'm not going to get into a numbers game of overflows before and after, blendings versus sanitary overflows, basement backups and manholes blowing into the air. Suffice it to say we've had a whole bunch of "100-year rains" in the 16-year life of this monument to municipal incompetence.

If your problem is a broken arm, you don't amputate a leg. If your problem is combined sewers, you don't dig a hole to hold water, a hole that can't be filled to design capacity because it will settle excessively in the sand causing the lining to crack, which it has already done. The city pays a pile of money annually to downtown business to compensate them for damages caused by settling induced by the tunnel built underneath them.

When the tunnel interceptor gates are closed and bypass gates opened because the tunnel is filling, this appears to cause a disruption in the flow of sewage, creating a reflected pressure wave which blows manhole covers five feet in the air and rapidly floods roads and fills basements. ( This is my analysis; no one at MMSD will admit to anything like this.) This has nothing to do with "leaky private laterals," which is MMSD's latest excuse.

The tunnel system will never fulfill its original intent. This last storm with its 8-inches of rainfall, a lot but certainly not a monsoon, dumped more water on Milwaukee and suburbs than 10 deep tunnels could hold and created massive tragic consequences to homeowners. (Anyone notice the speed with which FEMA has responded?)

The argument that this was a "500-year rain"--based on rate of accumulation--is irrelevent. Any time we exceed 2 inches, MMSD dumps. Build another tunnel and it will take a 4-inch rainfall. The only solution was and is to separate the sewers in that limited area of Milwaukee. Oh, but then a big Illinios contractror wouldn't get a huge contract and "reward" local politicians accordingly, a sad commentary on the state of government these days.

Shame on you, Al, that's cynical. 

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