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Cost of fixing sewer system keeps climbing

Storm sewer also may need work

March 28, 2012

The price tag for what would be the most costly sewer improvement project in the city's history may be even higher than previously thought.

Property owners in East Tosa have experienced basement backups following the heavy rainstorms in recent years. Consultants have estimated fixing the sanitary sewer problems would come at a cost of $34 million to $84 million.

The same area has suffered water entering people's homes through doors and basement windows due to overland flooding. The cost to fix the storm sewer problems has now come in, much higher than expected - about $46 million.

"The cost is phenomenal," City Engineer Bill Wehrley said, who was looking for direction from the Budget and Finance Committee on Tuesday.

The city must move forward with sanitary sewer improvements because the amount of water coming into the system violates the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District standards.

But when it comes to storm water problems, there are no mandates, just unhappy property owners who don't want to experience any more flooding.

Damage was widespread

In past flooding events, 32 properties - valued together at $10.3 million (there were some tax-exempt properties included) - that experienced more than 13 inches of flooding. One hundred fifty two properties experienced at least three inches of water in their homes.

Public safety also became an issue as State, Lloyd and Center streets and North and Meinecke avenues - routes to higher ground - were closed due to street flooding.

The storm sewer pipe is in good condition, it's simply not big enough, Wehrley said. There has been no significant difference in the amount of development within the area. Rather, weather patterns have changed.

"The type of rain we're getting is more intense over a shorter duration," the city engineer said.

The city may also have installed pipes 80 years ago that were simply too small, he added.

No action taken

There are other factors that could drive the price up even higher. For instance, the water pipes underground are 80 to 90 years old, Finance Director John Ruggini said. If the ground is being broken, now would be the time to replace those pipes.

Ruggini wasn't contradicting the need for sewer improvements, but as Alderman Peter Donegan said, the finance director was "choking on the expense."

The city would have to add $30 million to $40 million to its $100 million five-year Capital Improvement Program to cover the storm sewer fixes, Ruggini said.

The committee wasn't willing to give the full go-ahead on the project, but members also said something has to be done.

"I don't think anyone's comfortable with taking on a $120 million project tonight," Alderman Craig Wilson said. "But I do think we should move down the path of fixing it."

The committee unanimously directed Wehrley to contact MMSD, which has work planned for the vicinity of 63rd and State streets. That's the same area the city would construct a new storm sewer to the Menomonee River and likely construct the future sanitary sewer or overflow site.

The hope is that Wauwatosa could find ways to bring down the costs by having MMSD construct the storm sewer outfall at city cost while the ground is already torn up.

It might be a tight timeframe to coordinate the project since MMSD is already in the final design phase and expected to go out to bid this summer, Wehrley said. If MMSD is open to partnering, city engineers may have to drop other work to get designs ready.

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