Milwaukee avoids water system crisis — but not main breaks
By Don Behm of the Journal Sentinel
Sept. 30, 2015

Thanks to an infamous public health scare in 1993, Milwaukee has largely avoided the nationwide crisis of how to pay for long-deferred upgrades of drinking water treatment systems.

The Milwaukee Water Works has invested more than $459 million in its treatment plants, pipes and pumps since an epidemic of cryptosporidiosis swept through the city and became the largest documented waterborne disease outbreak in U.S. history.

Though cities like Des Moines are now facing coming up with $150 million soon to build a new treatment plant, Milwaukee spent $89 million from 1994 to 1998 to upgrade its two plants with state-of-the-art filters, particle monitors and even ozone disinfection to kill the toughest microbes out there.

"We put a lot of money into the treatment plants at that time and got a big leap forward," Water Works Superintendent Carrie Lewis said. "Since then, we have been focusing on water mains, storage tanks, pumping stations — all downstream of the treatment plants."

Even so, Milwaukee does share a problem common to all major northern cities with winter weather: water main breaks.

Some of Milwaukee's water mains were installed as far back as 1873.

Though the city is picking up the pace of replacing aging water mains, not all pipes are being rebuilt after 100 years of use. That is the recommended water industry standard.

Residents do not need to be reminded that municipal water pipes are aging.

Lincoln Memorial Drive flooded during the morning rush hour on Sept. 17 after a county-owned main broke and water gushed out of the hillside opposite Bradford Beach.

The pipe was not considered old since it was installed in 1949. The county now knows what the city found out long ago: More than half of breaks occur in pipes installed between 1943 and 1963 due to poor quality metal and sloppy installation practices at the time.

Replacing those pipes takes up a lot of cash that could have been spent on rebuilding older mains.

There have been 379 breaks of city-owned water mains so far this year. But that tally is far short of the record numbers in 2014, when utility crews had repaired 724 main breaks by the end of May. Most of the problems occurred in extreme cold that winter.

It costs an average of $2,400 to repair a break.

In 2015, the Milwaukee Water Works is on track to replace 15 miles of water mains, a hare's pace compared to the 1.3 miles in 2012, and more than double the 7.2 miles in 2013.

The state Public Service Commission last year required the water works to replace no less than 15 miles of mains this year, under terms of a 10.8% revenue boost in a rate case. The boost is expected to generate $9.25 million in additional annual revenue, up to a total of $94.86 million a year.

Residential customers pay an average of $210 a year for water.

It costs about $1.2 million per mile to replace small water distribution pipes — between 4 inches and 16 inches in diameter — beneath city streets, officials said.

The city maintains 1,963 miles of small and large mains. Milwaukee will achieve a 1% a year replacement rate if it gets to 20 miles of main replacements in 2020, as required by the PSC in the 2014 rate case.

"We are on track to accomplish that," Lewis said.

The utility's Texas Ave. pumping station was shut down in May 2014 after leaks were discovered in a 72-inch steel pipe delivering water from Lake Michigan. Closing of the pumping station cut off all lake water to the south side Howard Ave. treatment plant, so it, in turn, was closed temporarily.

Milwaukee avoided a major water crisis at the time because it has two treatment plants. The Linnwood plant on the lakeshore north of Bradford Beach has the capacity to serve the entire city and its suburban customers. It was completed in 1939.

Howard Ave. was completed in 1962 to provide additional capacity.

U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin Supports Investments in Wisconsin's Water InfrastructureThursday, May 22, 2014

Washington D.C. – U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin today voted to strengthen America’s waterways and ports, make critical investments in our nation’s infrastructure and support our economic recovery. The Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA), authorizes funding to renew the nation’s locks and dams, provides harbor and river maintenance, assists with flood protection, and restores key environmental areas. The legislation passed the Senate with strong bipartisan support, 91-7. Having passed the House earlier this week, the legislation will now go to the President to be signed into law.“In order for us to grow the economy and create jobs we need to make sure we build a 21st century Wisconsin infrastructure that includes renewing our commitment to our ports, locks and dams,” said Baldwin. “Rebuilding our water infrastructure will not only put people to work and create jobs, it will provide businesses with the quality infrastructure they need to move their goods to market.”Surrounded by two Great Lakes and the Mississippi River, Wisconsin’s waterways are an important transportation source and economic resource. Understanding the need to make important investments in this critical infrastructure, Senator Baldwin worked to insert key reforms in the Water Resources Reform and Development Act. They include:

A Buy American provision to ensure our nation’s drinking water and wastewater infrastructure programs use products made in the U.S., benefiting American industry and the hundreds of thousands of U.S. taxpayer jobs that they support – including 900 jobs at Neenah Foundry in Neenah

Provisions to allow the City of Milwaukee to move forward on restoring the Burnham Canal and transforming it into a wetland

Supporting increased harbor maintenance funding through administrative changes in the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund – directly impacting all of Wisconsin’s harbors, including those in Duluth and Superior, Green Bay, Milwaukee

Acknowledgement of the Great Lakes dredging crisis which will divert 10 percent of all new maintenance dredging funds to the Great Lakes

Implementation of measures to prevent aquatic nuisance species from dispersing into the Great Lakes

Changes to benefit inland waterways which will benefit waters in western Wisconsin along the Mississippi River, including in Cassville, Prarie du Chien and La Crosse

“We are pleased at the passage of this bill,” said Scott Hoffman, Neenah Foundry Vice President - Municipal Products Group. “I am confident that the taxpayers of America want to have their dollars spent on products produced in the USA with American talent.  The Buy American provision of this law ensures that not only are tax dollars spent wisely, but that the castings and fabrications used for our infrastructure are produced with the highest quality, durability and reliability.”In addition, the bill establishes two new programs to finance water infrastructure including the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Authority pilot project to provide credit assistance to state or local governments, agencies, tribal government as well as corporations and partnerships for drinking water, wastewater, and other water resource infrastructure projects.The Water Resources Reform and Development Act also significantly impacts Wisconsin’s agriculture industry as agriculture products and commodities are a large part of what gets shipped through our ports and inland waterways.“This is a long-sought legislative priority for the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation. As such, we are very pleased that Senator Tammy Baldwin supported the Water Resources Reform and Development Act,” said Jim Holte, Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation President. “The health of Wisconsin’s $59 billion agricultural economy hinges on us being a reliable supplier of agricultural products to domestic and foreign markets, but also access important inputs to grow their crops and livestock.”“This bill takes commonsense steps to create good-paying jobs here at home and makes smart investments that will help Wisconsin businesses grow,” Baldwin said. 

Published: Monday, April 21, 2014 — 7:50 p.m., WMTV, Madison, Wisconsin

​Water utilities around the state have had their hands full.“It was a winter that really took its toll across Wisconsin,” said Madison Water Utility spokesperson Amy Barrilleaux. In Madison, bitterly cold temperatures combined with an already-aging infrastructure, contributed to a spike in water main breaks.“On a typical year in the first quarter, we spend about $200,000 on main breaks, frozen surface laterals, that kind of thing,” she said. “We budget $1 million for the entire year. This winter, we spent just over $700,000 in the first three months of 2014.” Plus, she says additional costs will carry over into the summer.“First the cost for patching all of the roads where we fixed all 267 main breaks,” Barrilleaux said. “Also, we’re only just beginning to credit folks who have been running their water basically since February.”However, there could be some relief from the federal government. For the first time in the state’s history, the Wisconsin Department of Emergency Management might apply for federal aid to offset the cost of this winter’s water main breaks. Officials are still in the early stages of gathering cost estimates from local governments to find out if the state qualifies for assistance. If we do, we’ll only be the second state to do so.“I don’t know how easy it’s going to be to get federal money for this winter,” Barrilleaux said.Despite the prospect of outside help, Barrilleaux isn’t counting on it. Instead, she’s relying on the reason we’re facing this problem in the first place, the weather: “We’re hoping for a mild November and December of 2014.”