Loss of Trees in Sewer Project Could Be Lesson for All

Every tree is valued, but not all species are valued the same, as the ash borer approaches and the practice of monoculture of street trees is discredited.

Along the east side of a block of North 90th Street stands one particularly large and stately ash tree.

Around it is wrapped a hand-lettered sign that says, "Please do not cut down our TREEs." The "s" is tiny, implying that the supplicant prizes all the trees on the street, but this one more than all others – probably because it stands in front of his or her home, but also because it such a fine specimen.

Surely city foresters would be moved by that argument – and well they might. The larger, more sturdy and more shapely a tree is, the more it is worth to the community.

That is not just in aesthetics, but in pure economic terms.

But the fact is, that robust ash could be chosen as the first to come down. The reasons are complex; the explanations might be difficult to accept.

Trees are going to be lost; how many is uncertain

As moves forward, a number of street trees are going to be lost. The initial estimate was 240, but through a careful analysis of the project, the minimum number was reduced to 60.

That is a best-case scenario. The actual number of trees destroyed could be somewhere between those figures.

The dynamics begin something like this, according to City Engineer Bill Wehrley:

  • For a contractor, the easiest choice is often to clear-cut an entire street rather than to deal with working around the trees;
  • However, contractors have to pay a penalty to the city for each tree they destroy – perhaps as much as $30,000 for a large one;
  • So, contractors have learned to pre-assess the situation and write their estimated penalties into their contract bid;
  • Therefore, city engineers and foresters have learned to do extra analyses of their own and set project design specifications intended to minimize the damage.

But, in the end, all bets are off when the machinery actually starts to roll, the trench is dug, it starts to rain and the walls threaten to collapse, Wehrely said.

Or when digging past a tree, so much structural root growth is encountered and destroyed that the tree is in danger of falling onto a home or into the street.

Or in the event of any number of other unforeseen scenarios that could crop up.

Wehrley said that first estimates showed the city could have lost $1.5 million worth of trees in the Meinecke Project, with attendant haggling between city and contractors over who would be responsible.

Parks and Forestry Superintendent Ken Walbrant was asked to work with engineers on an assessment of the value of individual trees and blocks of trees along the route of construction.

If, for instance, in stretches where it appeared that trees on both sides of a street would be lost, the excavation could be jiggered slightly to one side to save the other, where would be the greatest gain, or the least pain?

Ash trees draw the short straw

Walbrant applied his own set of criteria, and among those was the looming arrival of a tiny green insect – the emerald ash borer.

It is Walbrant's educated opinion that within five years, despite any efforts to stave it off, the emerald ash borer plague will have reached Wauwatosa, and every one of the thousands of ashes in the city will be at high risk for infection and fatality.

(In fact, when the emerald ash borer was discovered in the region, the city sought bids for a contract to remove all ash trees at once, thinking they could be sold for pallet wood, pulp, chips, biomass fuel or something, and the proceeds applied to replacement trees. There were no takers.)

Therefore, all ash trees score low on the scale of trees worth saving.

As Wehrley put it, speaking for Walbrant's analysis, if it's between this ash and that elm or that maple, the elm or maple is going to win.

If it is between this maple and that corktree, the corktree is going to win, because the city can't get new corktrees anymore.

Your sewer line could be feeding that fine tree

Which is not to say that the big, stately ash mentioned above is doomed now, although Walbrant believes it is doomed eventually to the borer (ashes can be treated for the disease, but the treatment is expensive and not guaranteed effective).

But if that ash is in a segment of the project where a choice has to be made between it and another less risk-prone species across the street, the ash will lose out in spite of its apparent vigor.

Even with that explanation, does it seem right that this one tree that has so outstripped its neighbors in height and girth should be squandered?

Well, you have to ask how it got that way. Was it simply a genetically superior specimen? Or did it, among all the trees on that block, happen to somehow strike upon a rich source of water and nutrients?

Was that source perhaps a sewer lateral that its roots invaded? Very likely so.

Once upon a time in Tree City

Wehrley pointed out that for all on city sewer lines in the Meineke Project, it won't protect any individual home if that home's lateral is blocked by tree roots.

Among trees notorious for reaching their roots into sewer lines and feeding off them are green ash and Norway maple.

Old-timers on the forestry staff still tell of the "deal" the city was offered on green ash trees when the streets of Tree City Wauwatosa were lined with huge American elms for block after block after block, nearly all of them succumbing at once to the Dutch elm disease.

The ash trees were so cheap they couldn't be passed up. Nurserymen said they were fast-growing and would soon replace the lost elms. The city bought them by the thousands, and also Norway maples and European lindens and honey locusts.

There began a counterintuitive regime of trees in Tree City. Consistency and continuity was the goal, as if to recreate that palace guard of elms that had stood so long. (Did anyone stop to think that if rows of one type of tree could all fall to one exotic disease, so could another? Apparently not.)

Forestry mapped out Wauwatosa and assigned one of those four species to every block, ashes prevailing in sheer numbers. For many years, if the tree in front of your house was destroyed, damaged or diseased, you had no choice but to see it replaced with another of the same type. (Put another way, you had a choice of four species, so long as it was the one you already had.)

The trouble was, every one of those species was wanting in some way. The green ash, as it turned out, is an easy tree to start in the nursery. It naturally grows in floodplains and is prolific there. Give it rich soil and plenty of water, constantly, and it thrives.

In the dry and indifferent or downright awful soil of street rights-of-way, most of them grew poorly and produced unsightly specimens when they grew at all.

The Norway maples fared better, but they proved to be voracious feeders, sucking the life out of lawns and siphoning from sewer lines wherever they could find them.

Locusts were erratic, growing well here and poorly there, and everywhere producing the thinnest of shade.

Lindens showed themselves to be subject to cankers, which of course they passed from one to another when planted side by side for blocks on end.

Lessons learned for projects to come

That lesson, of the dangers of monoculture, has been learned by city foresters. The roots of trees intertwine and actually bind, or graft, to their neighbors, especially if they are of the same species. And if they are of the same species, any disease they are subject to will surely pass from one to another as if invited.

Wehrley said that residents whose street trees are taken down in the Meineke Project will have a choice of a number of species to replace them.

The same criteria will likely be applied if, as is likely, there are trees lost when the city eventually moves forward with the East Tosa Project, which is still in preliminary stages of development.

East Tosa, Wehrley says, is "the 800-pound gorilla" of sewer upgrades in Wauwatosa. It has older infrastructure than the Meinecke area and is more dense. East Tosa, comprising the 1st and 5th districts, accounts for about one-quarter of the households in the city.

It will cost somewhere between $32 million and $80 million, with uneasy estimates on the high side.

When the design phase of that project gets under way, it is likely that trees will again become an issue, and the answer will be the same.

City Finance Director John Ruggini was direct and succinct: "I place more value on the homes (that are flooded) than on the trees."

In other words, city property values can survive the time it takes to replace trees better than it can stand home values depressed by constant and unmitigated flooding.

So the streetscapes of some neighborhoods may become a bit motley, a tad untidy to some eyes.

The city may lose something of its old regularity, with long lines of identical trees lining every street, but it may gain in the overall health of its urban forest.

Julie O'Keeffe Henszey May 16, 2012 at 12:45 PM
Thank you for this good article. It is informative on the history of tree-related decision-making in our city and I appreciate knowing how events unfolded. I don't envy the folks who have to make these tough decisions.
Alfred May 16, 2012 at 01:30 PM
Is the decision a choice between raw sewerage in the basement and trees on the street? I think I would say the trees have to go.
Random Blog Commenter May 16, 2012 at 01:50 PM
Thank you for the very informative article.
alt ideas needed May 16, 2012 at 07:05 PM
its not about just the trees, its about our loss of property value, and the fact that we will not be able to park within a half mile of our residences for up to four months because of construction equipment. Fire trucks would not even be able to access our property. Why does Wauwatosa need to spend the money to put in 12 foot sewer pipes when only 5 foot pipes are needed? This is a wasteful use of money that does not justify the project.
Alfred May 16, 2012 at 07:19 PM
Okay so you want sewerage in your basement.
alt ideas needed May 16, 2012 at 07:23 PM
Alfred, only a small portion of people in this area have had sewerage in their basement, and many bought their houses knowing there were existing sewer problems in their houses. A majority of those affected by this project do not currently have any water problems in their basements.
Jim Price May 16, 2012 at 07:43 PM
Engineer Wehrley said that the Fire Department has given full assurance that it can and will reach any fire or emergency medical call without delay during the course of the project. The contractors are required to backfill the trench to road grade with gravel as they progress with laying the pipe, on a daily basis if necessary, so that only short stretches, perhaps not more than the length of a single home lot, will actually be impassable at any given time. Firefighters already pull hose from the nearest hydrant and don't necessarily need to park immediately in front of a call address. As to the size of the pipe, the existing stormwater line is 54 inches, or 4 1/2 feet, in diameter, and it is demonstrably inadequate. The largest proposed replacement pipe is 10 feet in diameter, and that is considered the necessary capacity to carry off the volume of water that has produced six major flood events around Meineke since 1997.
Alfred May 16, 2012 at 07:45 PM
Welcome to Wauwatosa Matt. This is the city run by fools for fools, they close down historic middle schools(Hawthorne) and open new ones on North Ave(Longfellow), then complain about traffic and crime. Given two choices, one good and one bad, the people of Tosa will always chose the bad decision. The newcomers to Tosa are liberals who can't afford Shorewood or Whitefish Bay, so they come here.
alt ideas needed May 16, 2012 at 08:10 PM
Thanks Jim and Alfred, I am starting to like Wauwatosa less and less. thanks for answering some questions Jim, since the residents near this project have been given no information or feedback from the city. Wauwatosa City Council could not even answer all our questions. Wauwatosa even admitted they made a mistake by not notifying all residents.
Laura May 16, 2012 at 09:24 PM
The property value decline between a home with a curb tree replanted and a home where the basement has been flooded 6 or 7 times isn't even comparable. Those who have been flooded multiple times can't even sell their homes at well below depressed real estate market values. With all the attention the Meinecke sewer project is now getting for Wauwatosa's glacial flood basin, being a Wauwatosa home that is connected to a new sewer system is a huge selling point!
Laura May 16, 2012 at 09:35 PM
Matt a question for you... do you consider the 600 homes in July of 2010 within the 'Meinecke basin' which had sewer back-ups a small portion? I believe you are misinformed on the numbers of homes affected and I totally disagree with your opinion that previous owners informed potention buyers. Wasn't the case for me 20 years ago and it still isn't the case. I spoke to my new neighbor today who bought his home within the last month (he noticed water markings in his basement) and the previous flooding to his new home was not disclosed to him.
Laura May 16, 2012 at 09:41 PM
Jim, I'm impressed with your 'center of the road' Patch reporting. (((Applause))) I hate to admit this, but I've been someone who has quit buying newpapers and listening to local news because I feel our local news media treats you like idiots thinking you are not capable of being given the facts and coming up with your own adult opinion on issues.
Jim Price May 16, 2012 at 11:04 PM
Thanks, Laura. I think it is sadly ironic and very unfortunate that the relief of people in the area suffering the worst flooding has to so affect the lives and property of people "downstream" who haven't been flooded – and I think both stories deserve to be told with as much information as possible, if one group of neighbors is to understand the other. I thought you and your neighbors did a great job Monday morning of expressing the "we are all in this together" point of view. On the other hand, the folks who were angry and confused over why they were being subjected to so much intrusion on their lives have a point – nobody really told them what was going to happen to them, or why, and they didn't have a chance to offer their input to seek ways to reduce the impact. Looks like I'll be writing a lot about sewers for a long time, so I hope you'll keep reading.
Jim Price May 17, 2012 at 12:51 AM
Matt, sorry, I had to delete your most recent comment because of one word (I'm sure you know which one) that doesn't jibe with our terms of use. Please feel free to resubmit without using that word. Also, I note that you say you won't have access to your own home (driveway, parking, etc.) for 10 weeks and that people with infants and toddlers and disabled people won't have acceptable access to their homes. In your first comment, you said that emergency vehicles wouldn't have access (not true), and that you would have to park half a mile away for months. I'm not saying you're wrong about that, because as the city engineer admits, anything can happen once the reality sets in and the trucks and backhoes start to roll – but where are you getting this information, if you are getting no information from the city? According to what I am told, there will be minimal loss of access to able citizens to get directly to their own homes, a day or two, a few days at most. And accommodations are to be made for the very young, the elderly, and the disabled. I don't take that at face value, but it does seem to me that there are a lot of rumors out there that are not based on any fact that can be verified. If the city hasn't told you enough, why would you suppose that there was somebody with reliable information who HAD told your neighbors enough to reach these conclusions? Again – not saying you're wrong, but what are your sources?
alt ideas needed May 17, 2012 at 01:13 AM
Jim, you are incorrect. Those on 90th st will not have vehicle access to their property for one period of up to four weeks, and another period of six weeks. Posted on http://www.wauwatosa.net/FAQ.aspx?QID=294 - question #15. Also, those on 90th St north of North Ave were given zero notification. Just one person's opinion - I do not care about the loss of trees, I am upset that I will not have vehicle access to my property for an estimated ten weeks. If it was one or two weeks, that would be fine, but not an estimated ten weeks or more. There has to be other options for limited disruptions . I bought a house so I could park my vehicle in the driveway. How will this affect the elderly, the handicap, and those with small children that have to park more than a quarter mile away? I am sorry about the human feces in your basement. If this is about being kind to your neighbor, then let me use your car and park in your driveway?
Alfred May 17, 2012 at 01:17 AM
No one is even talking about the eventual break in of cars from the fine citizens of Milwaukee while they are unattended and away from your premise......y'all know that is coming next.
Pat Ryan May 17, 2012 at 02:19 AM
Jim, i want to thank you for this informative article about the complexity of this kind of project. It is this kind of information that is needed to moderate emotionally driven responses to this planned project. I also appreciate the responses you have made to try to bring information and reason to bear in the discussion.
Laura May 17, 2012 at 03:11 AM
Matt my home faces Meinecke Ave and I have a wider, shorter length driveway. In order to alleviate your car concerns, I'd be happy to let you park on the side I don't use. I only have one vehicle to transport my children so unfortunatley I cannot let you borrow my car. I'll be in the same situation as you regarding the access and parking when the Meinecke Ave portion of the construction begins. Myself and my neighbors will be a little worse off though because many employees of the businesses at 86th & North park on my corner so the parking there is already at a premium. Matt I hear you and I do understand your frustration. By the same token, I hope you try understand those of us hoping the project moves forward with expediency. For us, this project is about having safety and security in our own home, the health of our families, the damage and destruction to our homes and our lives, the frequency of flood events, the inability to insure our homes properly and the decreased real estate market values of each and every flooded home.
Jim Price May 17, 2012 at 04:28 AM
Matt, I admit the answer now posted on the city website is for a far longer period than I was led to believe – or at least what I thought I understood – in the presentation on Monday, and I copy the answer here to save anyone the trouble of clicking through: "Most residents on 90th and Meinecke can expect to be out of their driveways for three to four weeks during paving and three to six weeks for utilities. Residents will be provided with overnight parking permits which will allow them to park overnight on City streets where parking is allowed. City staff will work with the contractor to minimize resident impacts as much as possible." That is a great imposition on a property owner, no question, and I will be checking with the Engineering staff to find out more about where, exactly, you are to be expected to park.
Pam from Tosa May 17, 2012 at 05:19 PM
I, too, want to thank you, Jim, for this excellent thread of information! I've passed it on to several neighbors.
Victor Plantinga May 17, 2012 at 09:32 PM
This is the kind of in-depth reporting that you don't often see. Well done, Sir! To live in any community involves shared sacrifice. I wasn't affected by the most recent tornadoes in the Mid-West, but I absolutely think that as a country we have to help those folks. That applies on the local level too. Otherwise every person would be in it for themselves. Also, in some cases (like this one) private insurance is not the answer because it will not be available for the people who have had multiple floods. As t the concerns, this is not the first time there has been an extensive construction project. Some of the problems, and their solutions, were worked out in prior projects.
Deb Strzelecki May 21, 2012 at 04:50 PM
A question: Has Tosa always had these flooding problems? I've lived a half block out of Tosa for almost 20 years. Seems like these problems are fairly recent. Maybe all the paving over and massive development in Waukesha county have something to do with it? Tosa and Milwaukee are downstream, so to speak, from the Waukesha watershed. I used to be a member of Friends of Milwaukees' Rivers and remember this.
Deb Strzelecki May 21, 2012 at 05:07 PM
I live in Milwaukee a half block out of Tosa. North 99th street from Concordia to Keefe was torn up and totally redone last summer as part of the Hartung Park project. Was a major pain. For 2+ months, had to park on city streets a block or more away. This was during the gardening season, so had to park, walk home, get wheelbarrow, load dirt, mulch, plants, etc. and wheel stuff home, all the while with 2 large dogs on leash. Grocery shopping was the same. Also was major worried about my vehicle. Everyday, I breathed a huge sigh of relief when I walked to it to see that it was still there, still undamaged, and still in one piece. It was full of bird poo and tree sap, but still there. My car insurance is already high enough just by living in Milwaukee. Good to see neighbors are already reaching out to help one another. That's what counts!


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