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Editorial: What Milwaukee can teach Chicago about clean water

87th Street at Natoma in Oak Lawn is covered by water during flooding last summer. | Jim Boyce/For Sun-Times Media Jim Boyce

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For years, people in Chicago complained about Milwaukee dumping sewage into Lake Michigan.

And Chicagoans didn’t complain just to each other. In 1970, Illinois sued Milwaukee over the pollution. As recently as 2002, eight Illinois members of Congress sent a letter to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency claiming Milwaukee dumped more waste into Lake Michigan than any other city. That same year, the Lake Michigan Federation and the Friends of Milwaukee’s Rivers sued again, alleging a billion gallons of untreated industrial and domestic waste were being dumped into regional waterways, much of it ending up in the lake.

Everyone was tired of the Milwaukee area releasing sewage into the lake whenever heavy rains overwhelmed the Wisconsin city’s treatment facilities.

But without fanfare, at least in Illinois, that’s changed. In recent years, the Milwaukee area has cleaned up its act to the point that it has lessons it can teach Chicago, beginning with the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago.

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As the Sun-Times reported last week, the water reclamation district has a curious practice of renting land along waterways to industrial tenants who have racked up pollution violations — a landlord role completely at odds with the district’s mandate to clean our local waters. And the Chicago region continues to lag behind in other water reclamation practices. Our local officials could learn from Milwaukee.

Like the Chicago area before it, Milwaukee built a tunnel system to capture combined storm water and sewage during heavy rains for later treatment. But the onetime scourge of Lake Michigan has done more. It has surpassed the Chicago area in “green engineering,” small-scale efforts throughout the region that use natural surfaces to capture and hold storm water so that sewers aren’t overloaded in heavy rains, forcing the release of untreated wastewater into the environment. Sewage overflows into Lake Michigan up north have dropped from about 60 a year to two or three.

“Milwaukee has done something that is pretty astounding,” says Joel Brammier, executive director of the Alliance for the Great Lakes. “Think of it as a challenge to Chicago.”

More than a century ago, Chicago reversed the flow of the Chicago River to keep sewage out of the lake. It was a matter of basic necessity — the lake is our drinking water. And Chicago later built the largest wastewater treatment facility in the world. Then, starting in the 1970s, Chicago began building a vast network of tunnels and reservoirs to hold overflows, an undertaking so massive it isn’t scheduled to be completed until 2029.

But pipes and pumps — so-called gray engineering — will be never be enough, particularly because climate change is expected to bring heavier storms and more rainfall. To complement such infrastructure, we need more green engineering. That can include permeable parking-lot pavements that let water soak into the ground, land set aside in flood-prone areas or even something as simple as a homeowner who installs a rain barrel to capture runoff from a down spout.

The Chicago area has been working on green engineering for years. The roof on City Hall of sedges and native wildflowers illustrates the commitment. But environmentalists say Chicago needs to do much more to catch up to Milwaukee.

Part of the problem is that storm water management responsibilities in the Chicago area are divided among a large number of area governments that share watersheds. Cook and the collar counties each have separate agencies, even though the water flows across their borders. In Cook County, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District shares responsibilities for six major watersheds with 133 municipalities, including Chicago. And though the MWRD recently completed a storm water management plan for Cook County, there is no regional plan.

By contrast, cooperation among a number of Milwaukee area governments has resulted in a series of programs to capture storm water upstream to keep it from causing flooding downstream. By itself, the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District has spent $1 billion on such green engineering as rain gardens, bioswales and porous pavement.

The Chicago area needs to adopt a similar regional focus. It will require lots of cooperation from areas that don’t experience much flooding themselves but that contribute to overflows downstream. But the payoff — a cleaner environment and less damage caused by flooding — would benefit everyone.

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