Nasty but necessary: The brief history of the Madison area’s municipal waste water

Post by Galen BergquistEric Booth

The exponential growth of urban American populations beginning in the 19th century provided tangible evidence on a rolling basis of how concentrated living arrangements produced a multitude of logistical challenges—sanitation being one very important challenge. Despite similar, if not more ominous, challenges appearing in other cities around the world, the United States successfully aligned their political agendas with sanitation—partly as a result of healthy (and growing) social and economic infrastructure.

Painting of Lake Mendota in 1870 or 1871 showing conditions prior to the direct discharge of sewage into it from Madison residents (Artist: Joseph Rusling Meeker, Brooklyn Museum, Wikimedia Commons)

Painting of Lake Mendota in 1870 or 1871 showing conditions prior to the direct discharge of sewage into it from Madison residents (Artist: Joseph Rusling Meeker, Brooklyn Museum, Wikimedia Commons)

From the early settlement of Madison by Euro-Americans in the 1830s to the 1880s human waste was dealt with privately by citizens through the construction of backyard privies and the daily dumping of chamber pots into yards and streets. As population and waste increased, these practices became the source of contaminated drinking water, horrific stench, and tremendous public outrage by the 1870s.

To resolve the drinking water issue, a municipal water supply system that tapped into a deep groundwater aquifer was created in 1882 and rapidly expanded (for more information check out last week’s post). In contrast, the city response to human waste handling was not as quickly successful. Initially, private sewers were constructed in wealthier neighborhoods in the 1870s that dumped waste directly into local streams, lakes, and wetlands.

At this moment, the city of Madison was at a cross-roads. It was the beginning of a period of rapid industrial growth and major socio-political change. As more and more calls were announced for change in how waste is handled and water resources managed, the city of Madison became an intriguing national example of sanitation reform and technological innovation in wastewater treatment.

The relative abundance of surface waters surrounding the Madison isthmus tended to skew the assumed capacity that these water bodies had for absorbing solid and liquid waste. But it’s unfair to say dispensing waste in this way was completely foolish considering the level of environmental understanding at the time. It did not take long for the telltale smells of fermentation, oxidizing sewage sludge, and frequent algal blooms to reveal a complex problem of superfluous nutrients in slow moving water. What would soon become an extensive field of research in aqueous chemistry, biology, and ecology, was emerging as a foul smelling dilemma.

For a short time, the city of Madison was small enough so that the cumulative waste was more or less assimilated by the lakes. But once the population began to grow above 10,000 people in the 1880s, the consequence of sewage discharge and the lack of water treatment methods and a unified disposal system began to push public action.

In the last two decades of the 19th century, when the issue of sanitation began to generate substantial interest among the public and ideas of waste treatment facilities began to emerge, the possibilities for broad chemical treatment and for diverting waste into crop fields that could use the additional nutrients were discussed within the city council.  However, the first action and legal initiative by the city happened to be the creation of sanitary districts. Each district was responsible for collecting and diverting waste from assigned neighborhoods.  This made the most sense economically, to split the organizational burden and reduce overall taxing, but in retrospect the decision delayed the adoption of a more refined sewage system.  It is a reminder of how cities can grow so quickly that, by the time a diagnosed problem is matched with a plan of action, the city outgrows the improvement right at its completion.

Of the eighteen total districts created in the 1880s, each was fitted with its own sewage system that would dispose raw sewage into Lakes Mendota and Monona, with the majority of sewage making its way into Monona.  The state law that was passed allowing the formation of these districts and the subsequent action by the city council was largely effective in illuminating again the original problem, which was the absence of a unified sewage system and supplemental water treatment facility.  However, the construction of a chemical precipitation plant for sewage treatment at the end of the 19th century marked some beginning to a unified system, at least implying that a handful of separate sanitary districts would direct their waste in one direction and receive treatment before entering the Yahara Lake chain.

Unfortunately, the chemical method proved ineffective, and by 1901 it was abandoned and replaced by a more advanced trickling filter treatment plant—the first of its kind in the U.S.  This treatment plant lasted until 1914 when its capacity was exceeded, thanks to rapid urban growth.  A new, more advanced treatment system was implemented, called the Burke treatment plant, which boasted a capacity of 5 million gallons of waste per day.  No more than six years later, Madison’s population had outgrown this volume and the city’s treatment facility was again too small to accommodate the rate of waste production.

In 1928, the Nine Springs treatment plant (with the same capacity of 5 million gallons of waste per day) was completed as a supplement to the Burke plant.  More importantly, the Madison Metropolitan Sewage District was formed and solidified as the main public unit to address current and future projects of sewage disposal and treatment for the entire city of Madison.  This was a great step in unifying the Madison sewage system, improving the general efficiency of waste management throughout the city, and providing a resource to the public for sanitary concerns.  Three appointed commissioners governed the services and operations of the MMSD.

The population of Madison continued to grow over the following years and, despite the treatment plants and conception of the MMSD, the lakes suffered from excessive nutrient runoff and subsequent algal blooms.  Algae collecting strategies were employed to help alleviate the problem and, beginning in the 1930s, spray treatments of copper sulfate were used to reduce the algae growth.  Over time, however, the public became increasingly concerned that the accumulation of copper on the lake bottom was harming the lake ecosystem.

The reactions from the general public to the continuing foul smell of decomposing algae emanating from the lakes were sharp and ruthless.  Similar to today, the lakes were central to the Madison community and for tourists.  They were recreational hubs and pristine habitats, which Madisonians could not bear to see rotting under their noses.  Lakeshore property was compromised as complaints mounted and the city began to lose tax revenue from these properties.

The state governor passed a law in 1943 that would prohibit the discharge of any treated solid/liquid waste into water bodies conveniently sized to the scale of Madison’s lakes, in addition to being surrounded by a city similar to the size of Madison. Originally introduced in 1941, this statute contained a small discrepancy that prevented enforcement of the legislation until World War II was resolved.  Regardless of the reason, political or economic, the city had decided to delay the effective employment of the law until the nation was finished grappling with war overseas.

During the war years, the lakes back home continued to fester and fume and a number of dedicated citizens came together and formed organizations such as the Southern Wisconsin Lakelands Improvement Association and the Lake Waubesa Improvement Association, which sought to generate greater political support and public interest in the health of the lakes.  By 1947, both city and state leaders were getting an earful from public groups—reminding them again of the law that was passed in 1943, and again of the foul conditions that persisted through the Yahara lake chain.

Meanwhile, the MMSD was well aware of their unfortunate position of responsibility and were not prepared to address the inevitable project of diverting all of Madison’s sewage to somewhere away from the lakes.  They began a legal battle by rejecting the legitimacy of the 1943 statute and lamenting the unforeseeable cost of such a diversion project.

In 1951, the State Supreme Court confirmed the validity of the statute and the sewage commission of MMSD was obliged to comply.  They estimated the cost of diverting sewage would be somewhere between 3 and 6 million dollars, depending on which route was taken.  Among the fourteen routes considered, the sewage commission picked Badfish Creek (south of Madison) as the best option in 1952.  The decision was based primarily on the assumption that algae growth could be prevented on the Badfish due to the creek’s fast current and its gravitational advantage, as situated at the bottom of the Yahara watershed, thus reducing additional costs of pumping to encourage flow.

This decision, however, was not met with consensus among members of the State Water Pollution Committee and the State Conservation Department.  After all, Badfish Creek was a trout stream, providing recreation and fish to hundreds of fishermen every year, not to mention drinking water for cows that roamed the dairy farms adjacent to the creek.  It should come as no surprise that the decision was met with significant opposition by all of the residents along Badfish Creek.  Not only would many farmers and landowners lose a portion of their land to the expansion of the waterway, which was needed to accommodate the added flow of some 18 million extra gallons of liquid per day, but dairy farmers faced a threat to the quality of drinking water for their cows.

As this conundrum began to unfold, Dane and Rock County citizens formed the Badfish Watershed Improvement Association, which spearheaded a campaign petitioning against the state’s decision of diversion.  Reaching the level of the State Supreme Court in 1956, the Badfish route was determined lawful. It was approved by the State Board of Health and backed by the Madison sewage commission.

Excavation of the diversion route on the Badfish began in 1957, beginning at the Nine Springs treatment plant and travelling all the way down the Badfish Creek into Rock County.  Some landowners received better treatment and compensation than others during the construction of this diversion route, but none of them were happy with the change.

Map showing the path of water in the Madison area. Groundwater wells (blue circles) pump water from a deep sandstone aquifer into homes and businesses. Wastewater is collected and eventually ends up at the Nine Springs Wastewater Treatment Plant (green triangle) where it is treated and then eventually discharged through a pipe and ditch (green line) into Badfish Creek.

Map showing the path of water in the Madison area. Groundwater wells (blue circles) pump water from a deep sandstone aquifer into homes and businesses. Wastewater is collected and eventually ends up at the Nine Springs Wastewater Treatment Plant (green triangle) where it is treated and then eventually discharged through a pipe and ditch (green line) into Badfish Creek.

Today, approximately twice the volume of treated solid and liquid waste is produced from Madison’s Nine Springs treatment plant as in the 1950s.  Treated wastewater still makes its way down Badfish Creek with minimal problems.  However, the beloved lakes surrounding Madison present a still-unsolved puzzle.  They have yet to meet the expectations of Madison residents, their quality still tainted by nutrient pollution.  Even in the absence of sewage discharge, the battle continues for pristine conditions on the Yahara lake chain.

Further reading on the history of wastewater management in Madison:

Mollenhoff, D. V. 2003. Madison, a history of the formative years. University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, Wis.

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