When it comes to water conservation, the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) is a definite standout. The Jones Island Water Reclamation Facility helps treat up to 300 million gallons of wastewater per day, protecting Lake Michigan and the people who live in the greater metro area. MMSD even produces a fertilizer — Milorganite — from the biosolids captured during the treatment process.
This city thrives on how resourceful it is. It’s annual “Doors Open” event draws thousands of Milwaukeeans excited to get a glimpse into their water operations and how they manage the elements each season.
MMSD’s duties to wastewater don’t stop at the facilities’ gates, though. Lake Michigan also faces contaminants that flow above this infrastructure, and they need just as much attention at the end of the winter.
Every spring, the Menomonee, Milwaukee and Kinnickinnic Rivers run a little higher, gorged by spring rainstorms and melting snow. As a result, high currents and stormwater runoff can pull an odd collection of items into Milwaukee’s waterways destined for Lake Michigan. Enter Capt. Scott Cassavant, a Veolia employee who has piloted boats on the Great Lakes for decades. It’s April, and he’s navigating through these beautiful channels. He sees a piece of plastic the size of a small tree floating up ahead. Then a tire.
Severed branches get trapped under bridge crossings and garbage builds up along the river barriers. It isn’t just unsightly and dangerous to small-boat owners, but bad for the water quality as well.
“It never ceases to amaze me what comes out of the river after the spring flush,” said Capt. Scott.
The Lynyrd Skymmr
In 2015, MMSD rocked the boat. The Menomonee River was free as a bird. Basically, it developed a way to knock this trash all the way to sweet home Alabama.
A 65-foot vessel, officially known as the Lynyrd Skymmr, took the water for the first time under Capt. Scott’s direction in order to remove this waste and keep the waterways clear.
“She’s about 53 thousand pounds empty, and we carry a significant payload,” said Capt. Scott. “It’s surprising the amount of weight this boat can carry.” Attributed to the famous southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd, the craft earned its name in a citywide contest in 2011.
Operated by MMSD, the Lynyrd Skymmr now sails 110 days on average every year throughout the summer, helping facilities like Jones Island treat water that’s uninhibited by dangerous debris. The Lynyrd Skymmr has managed to clean up to 1,445 cubic yards of water over the course of one year, making it a model of environmental consciousness during similar cleaning events every Earth Day on April 22.
It can be seen “skymming” through Milwaukee between April and October at landmarks such as the Humboldt Ave. bridge, the South Menomonee Canal and the Kinnickinnic River.