Dylan in the Deep Tunnel


You know, rarely, in polite conversation, is it ever discussed where it goes when we go, but in this Blog, we’re going to go there.  Because today, I’d like to celebrate what I, for one, consider to be a much-maligned municipal service, the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District or M.M.S.D.  I say much-maligned because it’s a service that we so often take for granted. 

Think about it:  When it comes to feeding ourselves we take responsibility for everything; we take responsibility for shopping, we take responsibility for preparing the food, we take responsibility for eating it, but when our bodies are done with it, that’s when we turn the responsibility over to someone else and expect that it will all be taken care of.  Now, if that someone were just some guy that came to your house every morning with a bucket, let’s call him the Pooperboy, you would thank him profusely and likely tip him handsomely, but because our human waste has no human face, we hate the idea of spending so much as a dime on it’s removal. 

As it is, we assume that when we flush the commode, a magical wizard turns our leavings into flowers and kittens and moonbeams.  Now, we all know that that isn’t true, but very few people stop to consider what does happen.

To do this, I’d like to track the journey of an adorable little guy called Terry the Turd-dle who gets flushed down the toilet of a typical suburban home.  If, like me, you watch a lot of discovery channel, you’ll know that turd-dles often participate in long, inspirational journeys which makes Terry perfect for this example.  So, (flush) down you go, Terry. 

Terry is now paddling down the household wastewater pipe, but, before long, Terry will enter a much bigger pipe.  Because this is the suburbs, it is likely called the sanitary sewer which is separate from the stormwater sewer.  If Terry had been flushed from a home in the city of Milwaukee, he would enter a combined sewer.  From here, it’s on to the water reclamation site. 

In the first stage, Terry and the wastewater around him enters preliminary treatment where screens and grates remove large objects.  If Terry squeezes through, he goes on to primary treatment where, if he’s heavy, he’s a sinker and if he’s light he’s floater, either way, his journey would end here.  But let’s say that Terry, determined little stinker that he is, makes it all the way to secondary treatment.  Here, Terry is attacked by tiny little microscopic “bugs” like bacteria, protozoa and Ryan Seacrest.  These bugs break down a majority of the organic material that remains, and this, I’m afraid, marks the end of Terry the Turd-dle.  But there’s good news. 

After the microscopic bugs eat Terry, they are cooked and dried into pellets and become a fertilizer called Milorganite, which makes your lawn lush and green and perfect for feeding to your next turd-dle.  Sunrise, Sunset.  The water that carried Terry is then disinfected before being discharged back into our Lake Michigan. 

The best of this water is then combined with barley, hops and yeast, and sold for $4.50 a cup at Summerfest.

It’s a tried and true process, but the trick is capturing all of the water and transporting it to either the Jones Island or Oak Creek facilities.  What many people don’t know is that just one inch of rain on M.M.S.D.’s service area equals 7.1 billion gallons of run-off.  Combine this with the wastewater from homes and businesses, and the M.M.S.D. becomes the classic I Love Lucy episode where Lucy and Ethel are working on the chocolate assembly line, and, when the conveyor belt starts moving too fast, end up having to stuff much of the chocolate in their mouths.  Replace the chocolate with sewage and you’ve got a fairly gross, but appropriate image of what the District has to deal with.  What to do? 

Well, you could build a series of strategically-placed tunnels, deep underground and capable of storing over 500 million gallons of this water until the water reclamation sites could get to it.  You could even call it the Deep Tunnel.  And, for entertainment purposes, you could also drop a hapless, part-time radio smart ass into one of them just to see what would happen. 

Well, folks, I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that that’s how I found myself at 28th and Hampton, in Milwaukee, waiting at the top of a 320-foot hole in the ground, filling my pants with the future contents of one such tunnel.


I, along with M.M.S.D. Public Information Manager Bill Graffin and Geologist and Engineer Don Olson waited for a crane to hoist the ornament-shaped, heavy, metal cage that would serve as our transportation down into what seemed to me, anyway, to be a bottomless pit.


To put 320 feet into perspective, the next time you’re downtown, count up 32 sets of windows on the U.S. Bank building.  Now you may think:  What’s the big deal?  People take an elevator up 32 stories every day.  Yes, but the difference between taking an elevator up and an ornament-shaped, heavy, metal cage down is 1) the lack of pleasant elevator music, and 2) the Visitor Safety and Health Orientation Waiver that you need to sign.  Number One on the list was, and I quote:  “Air in the tunnel will be monitored at all times by the designated competent person.”  I know that they’re simply saying that someone is monitoring the air, but the phrase “designated competent person” implies that the “designated competent person” is somehow surrounded by several “nameless incompetent persons.”  This was certainly not the case, so maybe, in the future, they could change the wording on their waivers.   

Another rule dictated that I had to wear a hard hat, safety glasses, a reflective vest and steel-toed rubber boots; the mandatory uniform of the “sandhog.”  “Sandhog” is a slang term used for urban miners; the roughneck guys that excavate underground.  As the old saying goes:  “If it’s deeper than a grave, the sandhogs dug it.”  The sandhogs began in 1872 with the building of the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City, and even participated in World War II when they dug the tunnel in Hogan’s Heroes that ended at the stump outside of Colonel Klink’s barracks.  You can always tell a sandhog by his handsome, rugged face, chiseled physic and his ability to intimidate doughy, part-time reporter guys into writing glowing reviews of the sandhogs in their Blogs.

When the cage arrived, I was surprised to see how small it was.  It could accommodate 2 people comfortably, 3 people uncomfortably and 4 people if you didn’t mind a “Walk of Shame” the next morning.  Maybe that’s what all the protection was about.

After a 30-second descent, we were standing in the Deep Tunnel.  It was a lot like a subway tube if you’ve ever seen one of those. 

Don the geologist was trying to convey interesting information, like the fact that the rock this deep was roughly 425 million years old and was formed back when the area that we know as Wisconsin was actually at the bottom of the ocean and near the Earth’s equator, but it was falling on deaf ears. 

For me, the excited 12-year-old in my brain had already taken over, and I was asking hard-hitting, journalistic questions like:  “Is the tunnel haunted because you disturbed an ancient Indian burial ground?  And Where are all the dinosaur skeletons? And “How does Batman get the Batmobile down here?”  As it turns out, for all of the science behind its creation and the benefits it offers us surface dwellers, the Deep Tunnel is really just a long, deep, dark, dirty hole…and I mean that in the best possible way.

To date, the Deep Tunnel Project has kept over 76 billion gallons of waste water from polluting Lake Michigan, it’s one of the best wastewater programs in the country, but only the overflows make the news, and in this is the M.M.S.D. conundrum.  They could build Deep Tunnels until the overflows numbered virtually zero, but that means higher taxes, and that’s a pretty tough sell.  Whether we consider it a right or a convenience, clean water costs money.

But believe it or not, there are things that we can do personally to dramatically reduce the wastewater that M.M.S.D. has to deal with.  On average, with washing, drinking and flushing, each of us uses about 65 gallons of water a day.  Just two things you can do to conserve water are:  Take shorter showers and turn off the water when you’re brushing your teeth or shaving.  Or, like the sandhogs, you can eliminate showering and shaving altogether.  And if any of the hogs read that, I might be returning to Phase Three of the Deep Tunnel very soon, and this time, my stay will be considerably longer.


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