Shafer Helps Milwaukee Maintain Leadership Position

Kevin ShaferBy Jim Rush

The City of Milwaukee has had an eventful history when it comes to water and wastewater management. Its very location, at shore of Lake Michigan near the confluence of the Milwaukee, Menomonee and Kinnickinnic rivers, served as an ideal location for manufacturing and transportation and helped fuel the city?s growth.

The city?s history with water and wastewater management can be traced back to the construction of the first sewers that began in the late 1800s. The city was one of the first to experiment with the activated sludge treatment method and opened the Jones Island Treatment Plant using that method in 1925.

But the city?s past also has its share of challenges ? among them numerous combined sewer overflows that prompted a lawsuit by the State of Illinois, and a cryptosporidium outbreak in 1993 that led to widespread illness throughout the region.

However, the result of this experience has led the region and city to take a proactive approach to water management and forge a new pathway toward stewardship that others may follow. In particular, the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District has been blazing new paths, pioneering watershed-based permitting programs and implementing green infrastructure solutions that are helping to improve water quality by reducing non-point pollution.

At the forefront of the District?s efforts is Kevin Shafer, who has served as executive director since 2002. As a result his involvement in steering the District?s innovative and collaborative approaches to solving water quality issues, Shafer is the winner of this year?s UIM Water Infrastructure Management Award.

Milwaukee?Kevin has set the bar high with regard to infrastructure issues,? said Ken Kirk, executive director of the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA). ?He came on board at a time when the District was viewed negatively by the press and the public, but was able to work with neighboring communities, NGOs and the public to help turn it around. He has been very aggressive in implementing green infrastructure and has committed to a policy of zero discharge by the year 2035. Kevin and MMSD are head-and-shoulders above most agencies in terms of their approach, and they are an example for others to follow.?

?Kevin and his team at MMSD are pioneers for integrated management and watershed-based permitting,? said Ben Grumbles, president of the U.S. Water Alliance, which awarded a 2012 U.S. Water Prize to Milwaukee. ?They embraced green infrastructure and watershed-wide strategies for sewage, stormwater and agricultural runoff long before the movements began to take root.? Examples include their Greenseams initiative and their work on a southeastern Wisconsin watershed-based permit.?Being the first municipality to have green infrastructure requirements included in their municipal wastewater discharge permit is another example of MMSD?s?cutting-edge leadership.?

Shafer has spent his entire professional career in the water sector. After earning his bachelor?s degree in civil engineering from the University of Illinois, he went to work for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Fort Worth, Texas, where he worked in water resources. While working for the Corps of Engineers, he attended the University of Texas and earned his master?s degree in civil engineering.

After six years with the Corps of Engineers, Shafer returned to his native Illinois where he worked as a consultant in the Chicago office of Parsons Brinckerhoff Quade and Douglas, Inc. (PBQD). It was there that he got involved with wastewater projects for the first time as part of the historic Tunnel and Reservoir Plan (TARP). From there, Shafer ventured north to Milwaukee where he helped establish PBQD?s regional office. At the time, MMSD was in the process of implementing a flood management program, and hired Shafer to run the engineering department in 1998 due to his experience in that sector. In 2002, Shafer became the executive director of the District, the position in which he serves today.

?I have always liked working in the water sector because it brings you closer to nature and closer to the environment compared to other engineering fields,? Shafer said. ?As an engineer in the water sector, you are building and designing things that help to improve the environment.?

At the time Shafer joined MMSD, its own version of TARP ? the Deep Tunnel ? had been recently completed (it went online in 1993) and opened amid controversy: Should the tunnel be built or should separate sanitary and storm sewers be constructed? Would the tunnel be effective? Would it be worth the cost? Who should pay for it?

?When I became executive director in 2002 there was a lot of debate and mistrust of the District,? Shafer said. ?I knew my biggest challenge was to reinforce in my staff that they were doing a good job, but all the negative publicity was really driving down morale. Then, we had to work to improve the image of MMSD with our stakeholders. This is an ongoing effort.?

MilwaukeeDespite the negative publicity, the Deep Tunnel was performing its intended function, reducing combined sewer overflows from 58 per year to less than three annually. ?The tunnel was a great thing for the environment but people hated it,? Shafer said. ?Part of the reason was because the public had invested all this money into infrastructure that was 300 ft underground and no one could see it or appreciate its benefits. That?s when we started talking about green infrastructure and purchasing buffers along the waterways. We also began a rain barrel program and tried to shift our emphasis from a large regional scale down to the individual property owner?s scale.?

During his tenure at MMSD, Shafer has been active in a host of industry and community organizations, notably serving as board member for the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA), for which he served a term as president, the Water Environment Research Foundation (WERF) and the U.S. Water Alliance. Shafer credits these associations with helping to share knowledge to help shape the future direction of the industry at large.

Additionally, he serves on the board of directors for the Milwaukee Water Council, an organization of water-related business and environmental and educational institutions aimed at making Milwaukee a hub for water technology. MMSD is one of 130 members of the Council, which includes Milwaukee-based businesses such as Badger Meter, MillerCoors, Kohler, Siemens, Veolia, Xylem and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. In September 2013, the Council opened a new building, a renovated factory, as the ?Global Water Center? to house office space and labs for water-related companies. ?The idea is to bring all the water-related entities in the Milwaukee area together and use their synergies to help other regions of the world deal with their water problems, and in doing this, increase the economic development potential for everyone,? Shafer said. ?By working together in a holistic fashion, all parties can benefit.?

Setting New Standards
MMSD?s foray into green infrastructure has had a transformative effect on the region. The District?s first such effort was the Greenseams program which began purchasing land to serve as a natural buffer, filtering pollutants from urban and agricultural runoff before they could enter the waterways. This approach works hand-in-hand with traditional infrastructure built to control point sources of solutions by helping to reduce non-point sources.

While some of the lingering public mistrust was an obstacle in the early phase of the Greenseams program, Shafer said, that eventually gave way as the benefits became evident. ?It has gone from a point where people thought we were going to try to use eminent domain to purchase the land, to now where people are wanting us to buy the land to ensure that it is kept natural and undeveloped,? he said. ?We also have had someone contact us to donate land as opposed to selling it. People are now very accepting of the program and willing to partner with us.?

Taking innovative approaches to a new level, MMSD partnered with the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Natural Resources, the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, the Southeastern Wisconsin Watersheds Trust and local municipals to forge a permitted watershed-based stormwater approach on the Menomonee River. This permit requires each municipality to meet the baseline municipal stormwater regulations required by EPA, but also includes group permit provisions that allow municipalities to work together across boundaries on watershed projects and stormwater education and outreach. This should allow municipalities to better leverage limited financial resources and to work on larger projects to benefit the watershed.

The first watershed-based stormwater permit went into effect on Nov. 29, 2012, with 11 communities within the Menomonee River watershed agreeing to participate. ?The agreement helps us all strive toward a common goal,? Shafer said.
Another interesting aspect of MMSD is that it has entered into a public-private partnership (PPP) for operation of its wastewater treatment plants. MMSD first turned to a PPP in 1998 and entered into its current agreement with Veolia in 2008. One of the benefits of a PPP is that it allows private-sector technology and experience while retaining public control.

The key to making a PPP work, Shafer said, is in communicating needs and expectations with the private partner during the contracting period. ?We put a lot of effort into the contract so that everything was clear and both parties came into the agreement with our eyes wide open,? he said. ?Through the agreement, we have been able to meet or exceed all of our permit requirements through stable rate increases over the last 15 years ? nothing too extreme.?

The ?New Normal?

In many respects, Milwaukee?s approach to water and wastewater is indicative of a ?new normal? that exists in the sector. The new normal encompasses a holistic way of looking at water management that includes sustainability and life-cycle considerations, as well as a watershed-based approach.

?The new normal to me means a new way of thinking about infrastructure,? Shafer said. ?Infrastructure doesn?t stop at the catch basin or house connection ? it is the entire system. It incorporates green infrastructure and energy efficiency, as well as accounts for climate adaptation and creation of open spaces for recreation. It?s about reducing our carbon footprint and becoming more renewable.

?We have set a very high standard for ourselves ? including a zero overflow policy by 2035 ? and we continue to implement projects and invest in our infrastructure to meet those goals.?

One of the most recent projects is a landfill gas pipeline to extract methane from decomposing trash at the Emerald Park landfill and transport it to the Jones Island Water Reclamation Facility where it will be converted into electricity for use in the energy-intensive wastewater treatment process. Already, the district uses biogas from the treatment process to help offset energy usage.

Shafer sees future challenges that include reducing pharmaceuticals in water sources, increasing energy efficiency, addressing aging infrastructure and reducing non-point sources of pollution as future challenges ? all while facing decreasing availability of funds.

?Sustainable funding is a huge issue that as a country we will have to address,? Shafer said. ?Here at the District we have a challenge in just keeping up with the rehabilitation and replacement of equipment and infrastructure that is aging. I think one way we can do that is by becoming as efficient as possible on energy. If we can become an energy producer with our biogas and landfill gas, that will help immensely and could be a revenue generator. We also need to look for partnerships moving forward because we have to understand that there is a lot of stressors on our water resources and the wastewater utility can?t address all these issues by ourselves; we need to be collaborative with others.?

Jim Rush is editor of UIM.

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