Lakefront development in Milwaukee is on the rise, and the Great Lakes Water Institute has identified urban stormwater runoff as one of the main causes of beach closings in the city, where stormwater outfalls often discharge directly to beach areas.

Responding to increased public and regulatory pressure, the largest waste-water treatment public-private partnership in North America has begun a 10-year, $1.5 million research and development program.

Veolia Water North America has committed $150,000 annually for three projects with the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District; the Great Lakes Water Institute at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee; and Marquette University. The company began operating the district's Jones Island and South Shore facilities in March 2008. The two plants, which serve a population of 1.1 million, have a combined processing capacity of 630 mgd.

An Associated Press story in early 2008 about traces of 36 pharmaceutical compounds in the nation's water supplies has led the EPA and public water suppliers alike to go on the defensive, reiterating that the amount of compounds is not harmful to humans and that they are not regulated by the EPA or tested by water suppliers.

The first project will measure and monitor water samples from both the 850-square-mile Milwaukee watershed and the Jones Island plant.

“It will allow us to better quantify where those pharmaceuticals might be coming into the system and see what phases of treatment have the most impact on removing them,” says Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District Executive Director Kevin Shafer.

After landfills, wastewater treatment is the second largest municipal source of methane. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 has set aside $3.2 billion for the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant program for local and state governments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Shafer hopes to tap into some of that to improve the South Shore plant's anaerobic digestion process to produce enough methane to use as alternative energy. Some of the district's treatment facilities supplement natural gas with methane biogas, resulting in $1.7 to $2 million in annual energy savings,

“We're taking an existing asset and wondering if there might be a better way to optimize that asset,” Shafer says. “Ideally, it'll save money and reduce our impact on the environment.”

Urban development is one of the largest contributors of nutrients to watersheds, and stormwater runoff is contributing to city beach closings. The third project is therefore designed to learn how nutrients are transported from a watershed to a river, and how the climate and land use affect that transfer.