In the heart of Wauwatosa, young boys tote fishing poles as they walk barefoot through the shallows of the Menomonee River. It's warm and sunny, a late morning in mid-August.
Above them, café patrons sip coffee at outdoor tables on the Harwood Avenue bridge. Snippets of conversations drift toward the water, blending with the river's chatter.
There's another sound, too - one that shouldn't be there. A few yards away, a storm sewer outfall is discharging a steady stream of water that slaps and splatters off nearby rocks as it flows into the river below.
The problem is the pipe shouldn't have any water to funnel. It hasn't rained in days.
Some of the flow is probably harmless groundwater seeping into the pipe, but at least part of it is sewage containing human feces, according to recent lab tests from Milwaukee Riverkeeper.
Jason Schroeder is the water quality assistant for Milwaukee Riverkeeper, a nonprofit organization working to protect water quality in area watersheds. During the past year, he has taken water samples from 74 of Wauwatosa's 144 outfalls, including the one under the Harwood Avenue bridge. Schroeder is looking for evidence of human waste along 9 1/2 miles of the Menomonee River and the Honey and Underwood creeks. So far, he's found it in about 41 percent of the outfalls he has tested.
The samples are first tested for Enterococcus and E. coli bacteria. In some samples, bacteria levels have been as high as those of raw sewage. But bacteria can come from animal feces, so a positive test doesn't conclusively indicate human waste. That's why samples are tested for a specific DNA marker that indicates the presence of human Bacteroides.
The test yields an inescapable truth that is perhaps best understood when stated as simply as possible: There's human poop in the water.
Health risk exists, minimally
Besides human waste, sewage can contain bacteria and pathogens like Salmonella and Cryptosporidium, trash, soap and other chemicals. That means an increased health risk for humans and wildlife in the rivers, but also in Lake Michigan, where the waterways discharge, according to a Riverkeeper report.
The presence of sewage means residents should be mindful of the risk, but, Schroeder said, the water is generally safe. The riskiest times for a swim are within two days of a rainfall, when storm water flushes any lingering sewage out into the waterways.
But the water should be safe all the time, said Cheryl Nenn, Riverkeeper's interim executive director.
"Ultimately, what we want is safe, clean rivers," she said.
Riverkeeper will keep working through 2012 to collect at least three samples from every outfall.
Age plays part
Bill Kappel, Wauwatosa public works director, said there are a few ways sewage finds its way into storm water systems. Pipes get old and simply leak. In some cases, home and business sanitary and storm sewer lines have been unintentionally crossed. Sometimes, property owners intentionally break the law, diverting sewage into the storm sewers to skirt repair costs.
These problems are more common than previously thought, as proven by a three-year study by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Great Lakes Water Institute. The study, funded by the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District and released this month, found evidence of human waste at many Milwaukee area outfalls, rivers and beaches.
Riverkeeper is focusing on Wauwatosa because projections from MMSD and the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission have indicated the problem is biggest here, Nenn said. Nobody's sure exactly why that is, but Schroeder and Kappel said the city's aging infrastructure is probably the main cause. Schroeder said he finds his highest readings in the oldest parts of town, which date back to the 1850s.
City jumping into action
Now that the city is aware of the problem, it will begin fighting sewage issues right away, Kappel said.
"We're doing what we can as quickly as we can, to make sure we can tighten up our system," he said, indicating work will begin before summer ends.
According to Riverkeeper's first round of lab results, the worst outfalls are along the Menomonee near Center Street, 90th Street and Kenyon Avenue, and where the Menomonee meets Honey Creek, near 70th Street.
Michael Maki, city stormwater engineer, said workers will test further up the flagged outfall pipes to detect exact locations of cracks and cross-connections. Offending pipes will be replaced or relined, and illegal connections will be rectified. The process will be paid for by the Stormwater Utility, funded in part by a charge on residents' tax bills.
"As long as we're getting positive (human Bacteroide) results, (work) will be endless," he said.
See whether the storm sewer outfalls near your home tested positive for human Bacteroides by visiting milwaukeeriverkeeper.org/content/bacteria-testing.
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