Infusing Sustainability into Water Reclamation Operations with MMSD

Friday, September 9, 2022

  • For Rick Niederstadt, Capital Program and Support Manager for Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewer District (MMSD), sustainability is second nature.
  • In a sustainable construction and operations-focused webinar, Rick described the organization’s sustainability goals and current progress toward them, challenges associated with implementing sustainable initiatives, and advice to municipalities just getting started.

How is MMSD getting serious about construction sustainability?

MMSD serves about 1.1 million people in and around Milwaukee, covering approximately 350 square miles. We provide water reclamation, wastewater conveyance, flood management, and green infrastructure.

With around 300 miles of metropolitan interceptor sewer, 32 miles of deep tunnel storage, and two 300 million gallons-per-day capacity water reclamation facilities, we have a large impact that demands large sustainability goals.

We have set some pretty ambitious sustainability goals through our organization’s 2035 vision, including:

  • Zero sewer overflows
  • Zero structures in the 100-year floodplain
  • To manage the first half-inch of rainfall (740 million gallons) with green infrastructure
  • To meet 100% of energy needs with renewable sources
  • To meet 80% of energy needs with internal, renewable sources
Rainwater Collection

Can you tell us a bit more about these sustainability goals?

Our water sustainability goals of zero overflows and zero structures in the 100-year floodplain aim to reduce environmental impacts. We have a number of sewer structures within the FEMA 100-year floodplain. Storms are becoming more significant and more intense, putting these structures at risk. Therefore, our goal is to make sure we don't have any structures at all in the 100-year floodplain.

Another significant goal for us is to manage the first half-inch of rainfall where it falls within our service area. This equates to 740 million gallons of rainwater. We have a deep tunnel system that can store 521 million gallons, but we're looking to use green infrastructure to manage even more than that.

Finally, we have a goal to meet 100% of our energy needs with renewable energy sources. In doing so, we want 80% of our energy needs to be met with internal renewable energy sources that we own, operate, and develop ourselves.

What are some of the challenges associated with incorporating sustainability in your industry?

Traditionally, our industry is what I would call a gray industry. We think in terms of concrete, steel, pipes, and buildings, often making construction sustainability an afterthought. Our district was certainly focused on sustainability before it became a buzzword, but for the industry as a whole, we need to figure out how to build sustainability into the culture.

Resource availability is a limiting factor in implementing sustainable operations—simply not having the people and the time to do so. Additionally, acceptance of new and different approaches can be a pretty significant barrier to overcome.

Water Reclamation
Water Treatment
Water Reclamation

Some in the industry get caught up thinking, "I need a bigger sewer. I need more wastewater storage. I need larger treatment plants," without considering all the implications. We have to get people to start looking at things through a different lens and understand that there are other, more sustainable approaches to solving our problems.

Not specific to just sustainability, change is hard. If your organization is used to doing things a certain way and has been doing it that way for a very long time, changing your business processes can undoubtedly be difficult.

How do you prioritize sustainability projects?

Sustainability is obviously a huge task, but our initiatives and projects are small. How do you eat an elephant? I'm sure you've all heard that saying—one bite at a time. We certainly have big goals, but we're only going to achieve them by making small, incremental progress.

We take a triple bottom line approach to sustainability by considering the social, economic, and environmental effects of our initiatives. For example, when planning a new project, we would consider questions like:

  • How does this project improve permit compliance?
  • How does it impact the environment?
  • How does it impact the amount of energy that we use?
  • How does it impact the type of energy that we use?

We also look at safety, asset management, fiscal planning, etc. Finally, we consider all of our goals and their impacts across the organization and use quantitative data to score and prioritize projects.

How have you progressed toward achieving your sustainability goals?

For our goal of zero structures in the 100-year flood plain, we've removed 2,535 structures to date and have 1,263 to go. Regarding energy, we're at 26.9% of our goal to meet 100% of our energy needs with renewable energy sources.

We're making good progress toward our goal of capturing the first half-inch of rainfall across our sewer service area. We've got 37.1 million gallons to date and have a roadmap to reach our 740 million gallon objective.

Water Sustainability

As for our goal of zero sanitary sewer overflows, unfortunately, in 2020, we had two. I don't remember specifically if those were due to incredibly heavy rainfall events or equipment malfunction, but regardless, we have a little ways to go in achieving that goal.

We also have a goal of zero combined sewer overflows, but again, we had two in 2020. While this is better than most similar agencies, we still want to hit zero.

What does sustainability look like in terms of your real-world projects?

Treatment plants use a ton of power, so many of our real-world projects focus on creating more energy or consuming less.

Our Jones Island Water Reclamation Facility has a landfill gas pipeline that we own and operate. This pipeline transmits gas generated at a nearby landfill up to our water reclamation facility, where we compress it into a higher pressure. Then, our landfill gas powerhouse burns the gas and converts it into energy for the treatment plant to use.

Water Treatment Plant

At our South Shore Wastewater Treatment Facility, we digest sludge through anaerobic digestion, creating biogas. Then, a powerhouse converts the biogas into electricity via engine generators for the plant to consume.

One of the biggest energy consumers of the treatment process is providing oxygen for the bugs that eat the waste. So we recently installed a new variable frequency drive (VFD) for one of our main blowers. This allows us to meet only the demand for the air we currently need, rather than using more energy to create unnecessary air.

Our Milorganite facility is probably the oldest sustainable operation that we have. Milorganite is a fertilizer made of biosolids used across the country for lawns and golf courses. If we didn't turn that biosolid into something for beneficial reuse, we would have to send it to a landfill. Rather than creating waste, the biosolid actually creates a revenue source for our organization.

Other sustainable initiatives and green infrastructure across our treatment plant sites include solar arrays, green roofs, aqua blocks, permeable pavement, and bioswales.

What is your advice to municipalities just getting started with sustainable initiatives?

Sustainability doesn't have to mean the same thing to everyone. If you’re in a different industry, you have different goals, and you need to define what you want sustainability to mean in your organization. For us, sustainability has a lot to do with capturing rainwater and keeping our systems high-performing. Another organization might focus on LEED-certified buildings or Envision-rated projects.

Rain Water Garden
Sustainability Team
Rain Water Garden

Start by defining your goals and what steps are needed to achieve them. You have to understand that it's a significant undertaking. Create incremental milestones because there's not going to be one initiative or project that will get you from the starting line all the way to the finish.

Then, find ways to measure and monitor your progress. We have a long way to go to achieve our goals, but we measure our progress and know what we still have to do to get there. Make that vision, set those goals, and make sure you always make decisions based on those goals.

Should the owner drive the sustainable conversation on construction projects, or should they rely on the general contractor?

It should absolutely be both. Owners need to include what they feel are appropriate and responsible sustainability requirements within their contracts. Requiring contractors, designers, architects, and engineers to incorporate sustainable practices helps move the needle.

Often, contractors do whatever is in their best financial interest. When electric construction equipment becomes available, I think contractors will inherently become more sustainable. If it's cheaper to operate an electric bulldozer, excavator, or crane than it is to fill it full of diesel every morning, they're going to take that approach. I think it has to come from both sides.

Sustainability makes financial sense. We didn't do the projects I described earlier just because they were sustainable. We did them because they were sustainable and made financial sense. It's far cheaper to capture 740 million gallons of rainwater using green infrastructure than it is to build additional underground tunnel storage.

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