East Side History Madison’s Blog

By and for the East Side History Club, a project of the Goodman Community Center

Wastewater treatment: a tale of responsible civic growth

Posted by eastsidehistorymadison on October 21, 2013

Michael Mucha presenting

Michael Mucha presenting.

Paul Nehm presenting.

Paul Nehm presenting.

Michael Mucha and Paul Nehm, employees of the Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSW), brought attendees of our October meeting a detailed look at the history of area wastewater treatment–a story intertwined with  urban growth in the watershed stretching from Waunakee to Lake Kegonsa.

The story of wastewater management begins 100 years ago as people moved to cities; its impact becomes clear when you consider the “watershed” year 2008, when half the Earth’s population was living in urban areas.

Building Madison’s sewers was heavy labor conducted with block and tackle, shovels, and human labor assisted with horses.

The East Side, like surrounding north Monona and Blooming Grove and other communities growing up at the turn of the 20th century, relied on sewer districts  in conjunction with real estate development. On the east side, developers simply piped untreated sludge to Lake Monona from the houses they built for sale. Homes built outside these developments had a septic tank, if not an old-fashioned “back house.” Many of the houses built in the 1900s-1910s were constructed with the expectation of plumbing to be added later, when the homeowner could afford it.

Middleton, Shorewood, and the mental hospital campus on the north shore of Lake Mendota all disposed of their waste in Lake Mendota.

In the 1920s the conditions of Madison-area lakes became so bad that the city of Madison began looking at forming a sewerage district, but it took years for the details to be hammered out. The MMSD was formed in 1931. During the Depression lines were expanded and plants constructed using WPA labor, which required hiring of local men, at a minimum wage of 50 cents per hour.

Paul and Michael brought a collection of 16 detailed scrapbooks showing construction of area pumping stations, construction and expansions at the Nine Springs plant, and other details of Madison’s sewer history.

pumping station 1 under constr

Pumping station 1 under construction on North First Street between East Washington and Johnson.

As Madison grew to the east, the Burke plant was built near Oscar Mayer on the site of the former Madison Airport. That plant reached capacity and was abandoned in 1936 after the Nine Springs plant opened. The Burke plant  was reopened during World War II when a radio school opened at Truax Field expecting 16,000 students. Oscar Mayer took over operation of that plant after World War II ended.

During the 1950s as Madison expanded, a five mile long pipe was built to carry the treated effluent from Nine Spring to release into the Badfish Creek south of Lake Kegonsa. That is the system that today keeps area lakes clean and Madison residents sitting pretty.

Paul Nehm described clouds of foam floating from the Nine Springs settling ponds over the South Beltline when non-biodegradable detergent was still in use. Once the environmentalism movement began to make headway, that disturbing  sight disappeared.

The MMSD has worked closely with the University of Wisconsin’s Engineering  School to research and apply the latest technology in sewage treatment over the years, and that collaboration continues.

Bus and walking tours are offered at the MMSD’s Nine Springs Plant. Over 2000 children visit each year.

Among Nehm’s memorabilia was this excerpt from the Capital Times, June 13, 1931, in which local journalist Alexius Bass parodied a Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem written about Madison in 1876.

longfellow poem parody


One Response to “Wastewater treatment: a tale of responsible civic growth”

  1. Katy Schumacher Dycus said

    Just wanted to say it was interesting to read a poem by Mr. Alexius Baas. My dad, Kenneth Alexius Schumacher (1923-2014), was named for him. I heard the name often as a child, but knew nothing else about him.

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