Highlights from an interview with Kevin Shafer, Executive Director, Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD)

Q: At the 2018 Global Water Summit in Paris, you mentioned four un-invented technologies that MMSD needs.  Which one do you most need and why?

A: We need more real-time, low-cost active controls for green infrastructure. Our top priority is green infrastructure because it meets a lot of needs at once and we already have a lot of green infrastructure in place. However it could be managed better. Bioswales are landscape elements designed to concentrate or remove debris and pollution out of surface runoff water. We would really like to see bioswales hold about six more inches of water than they presently do to maximize their use. We would also like to increase the holding capacity of the drains and piping under porous pavement as well as be able to control the release better.

We also really need to deal with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). PCBs are known carcinogens and are hazardous to our constituents. This is a problem that probably any utility in an industrial area has, but just doesn’t know about it yet. MMSD found out about PCBs because PCBs got into Milorganite, MMSD’s organic nitrogen product made from bio-solids, which has been sold as fertilizer since 1926. PCBs are a problem because they create a black tar-like substance at the bottom of pipes. To solve the problem we spent about 10 years working with the EPA. And since there are no PCB responsible parties left to help cover clean up costs, municipalities will have to clean it upon their own. Fermilab, outside of Chicago may have a possible solution to clean up PCBs using electron beams but its still being tested.

Q: MMSD is a public utility that oversees a private operator, Veolia, as part of a blended public private partnership (PPP). How is that working and what might other utilities find useful to know about the partnership?

A: In 1998 we began a 10-year contractual relationship with United Water Services. In 2008 we signed a 10-year contract with Veolia, which was renewed in 2018, so we have a long history with this kind of partnership. MMSD owns all the assets and makes capital improvements while Veolia operates and maintains the system. It’s like having a landscape service where the homeowner owns the land and the service provider takes care of maintenance. We saved $160M under the United Water contract and $10-11M under the Veolia contract so far. This kind of partnership can produce a lot of savings in the beginning but now we are getting to a point where the majority of savings have been squeezed out and we are moving to a more steady-state efficiency. PPPs work differently depending on the state, utility and other unique factors, so a PPP’s success can’t be guaranteed. One key to MMSD’s success was a lot of due diligence up front which allowed creation of a strong contract favorable to both parties.

Q: You have said that MMSD has evolved from a being considered a polluter of waterways by its customers to being a protector of waterways. How did that evolution happen?

A: In the late 1990s we were known as a polluter. There was a lot of bad press and stories in the newspaper every time there was a combined sewer overflow (CSO). MMSD was also insular at that time. People didn’t want to come out into the public realm. They wanted to stay behind the scenes. I recognized that we needed to have a consistent message and to bring that message into the public realm. We needed to pursue visible green infrastructure and flood management projects so people could see the positive impacts. We took a vegetative approach instead of concrete. In fact we actually took out a lot of concrete. These actions created a metamorphosis for the river. The fish came back and so did the people. People starting connecting MMSD to these positive improvements. And as part of the effort to address previous bad press regarding CSOs, we not only tried to minimize CSOs, but when they did happen, I got out in front of the public. I went on camera on location to explain the problem and show how it was being addressed.  I was in my uniform and pretty disheveled so they could see that we were actually working to address the problem.

Q: Do you have any insights for other utilities looking to follow in MMSD’s footsteps in terms of transformation?

A: Appreciate great staff.  Allow them to implement their ideas and don’t micromanage. Lay out an aggressive vision then step back and let your staff make it happen. Also, understand the importance of messaging to the public and how that messaging ultimately drives politics.

Q: What inspires you about the future for utilities?

A: I think we are seeing change in the industry as a whole. We are beginning to move beyond a focus on pipes and treatment plants and toward an approach that is both green and oriented toward watershed versus political boundaries. This shift in approach will help utilities start addressing larger agricultural and storm water issues. The water industry should be proud of how far it has come since the 1960s. We now have a much better understanding of issues. We are optimizing water management and are better prepared for climate change challenges. Global leaders are also showcasing examples of what is working and helping other utilities improve, which will help the entire industry move forward.