Water Affordability on the Fresh Coast

With our partners at the Water Center at Penn, we are shining a critical spotlight on the local leaders who are forging the path on water affordability. Learn more about how we’re supporting city leaders hereAre you a mayor new to this issue? Start here.

When utility leaders hear water affordability, they often think about customer assistance programs, ie. ways to directly assist customers to help them pay their growing utility bills.

We, however, encourage you to take a more holistic approach and start with efficiency. After all, the water you don’t waste is water you don’t have to spend money on to treat. 

Joining us at June’s Community of Practice was Kevin Schafer from the Milwaukee Metro Sewerage District (MMSD), to share his approach to efficiency. Responsible for a 411 square mile wastewater area and about 1.1 million customers along Lake Michigan, his work has borne significant fruit since he started in 2002.

Planning for the Future

MMSD’s ambitious 2035 Vision includes prioritizing flood management, green infrastructure, and climate resilience measures to keep sewer rates as low as possible for its most vulnerable residents. 

Renewable Energy Sources

According to the EPA, electricity alone can constitute 25-40% of a wastewater treatment plant’s annual operating budget. To reduce these costs and protect against the increasingly volatile climate risks, MMSD’s renewable portfolio includes:

  • Landfill Gas Program: This produced about 33% of their energy in 2020 and costs 52% less than buying natural gas, a natural solution to save money.
  • Solar Installations: While not yet a huge energy source, as Kevin said, “every drop counts”.
  • Biogas: Like a lot of plants, MMSD has produced biogas since the 60’s, providing about 55% of the energy for one of their two facilities.

 Though not a renewable source, MMSD also sells Milorganite—a biosolids fertilizer—which has been a great way to offset costs. While it does currently use a lot of energy, they’re actively working to reduce this. 

Manage Water Where it Falls

Amidst political pressure in the early 2000s to address river pollutants, they completed a study that showed that pollution was coming from stormwater runoff, not from their treatment plant like previously thought. So, they got to work addressing this. By looking at the problem from a systems-level, they were able to focus their efforts most efficiently. These efforts included:

  • River management: MMSD has partnered with the county and US Army Corps of Engineers to naturalize formerly concrete waterways, many of which weave through the heart of Milwaukee and also offer recreation opportunities and places for the community to gather.
  • Green infrastructure programs: MMSD provides grants for rain barrels and green roofs.
  • Greenseams: This innovative program purchases property along shorelines and wetlands, then turns them over to land trusts to manage.
  • Working Soils: Heavily funded by the federal government, this program helps farmers manage soils and reduce nonpoint runoff.


After years of public scrutiny over excessive combined sewer overflows, MMSD has captured and cleaned 98.4% of all the water that’s entered the regional sewer system since 1994—one of the best rates in the country. While there’s much more to be done, MMSD is well on its way to meeting their 2035 Vision. 

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