Water Tower | La Porte City, IA

Northwoods Faces Tough Wastewater Challenges

Posted on 02/10/2016 1:42 PM

Pat Morrow, P.E.
Pat Morrow, P.E.

Wisconsin’s stricter water quality standards for wastewater treatment don’t discriminate – whether it’s a small town in Wisconsin’s Northwoods or a larger city just outside of Madison. Specifically, the new phosphorus regulations – and the myriad of compliance options to evaluate – are challenges facing wastewater treatment plants for Northwoods communities as well as larger metropolitan areas.  

“However, the economy of scale in the Northwoods is not equal to that of larger communities in the southern part of the state,” explained Pat Morrow, P.E., of MSA Professional Services, Rhinelander. “Smaller communities typically pay more for wastewater treatment than larger ones because there are fewer users to absorb the costs of capital improvements.”

New Sewer User Charge Survey

MSA is now in the process of analyzing data from its 2016 edition of the Wisconsin Cost of Clean Sewer User Charge Survey. For the past 20 years, MSA has collected data regarding the true cost of safe and reliable wastewater treatment. 

Information from the firm’s eighth survey, to be available in June, will illustrate the major factors impacting sewer rates. It will help the public understand why sewer rates can be vastly different in two neighboring communities. (See results of earlier surveys.)

Morrow said that decisions made now and in the near future regarding water quality standards will have a huge impact on how much residents will pay for sanitary sewer services. 

Large federal grants once helped pay for sewer and water infrastructure. Now those grants have declined and current utility rates charged by many communities may not reflect the true cost of depreciation or replacement of these facilities, he explained. The new water quality regulations also are adding to the complexity of the issues.  

In his role as an environmental engineer, Morrow has helped communities navigate the often complicated regulatory environment in both the southern and northern parts of the state. 

When considering options, Morrow noted that southern communities are concerned with the same issue as their northern counterparts. They want to get the best value for their money when it comes to complying with the ever-changing regulatory environment.

Morrow, a native of the Upper Peninsula (UP) of Michigan, added, “Perhaps one difference is that the northern communities, more than their southern counterparts, have been forced to a greater extent to ‘make due’ with what they have– it’s just the way things tend to be up north where incomes are often lower and budgets are smaller.”

Understand Water Quality Options

“So how are communities going to comply with the water quality standards?” Morrow asked. “There needs to be thoughtful planning and a deep understanding of all options.”

Communities can consider the following to meet the stricter phosphorus standards: An individual economic variance based upon economic hardship; A treatment plant upgrade that takes advantage of available funding; Watershed-based approaches; and the pending statewide multi-discharger variance.
“There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach,” he emphasized. “No matter where you live in the great State of Wisconsin, there are different environmental, socio-economic and political forces at work. As a native of the UP, I appreciate the resourcefulness and independence of Northwoods residents who will have to deal with this water quality challenge.”

Morrow is also leading one of Wisconsin’s first Adaptive Management planning projects for nonpoint phosphorus reduction in the City of Lodi, Wisconsin. MSA’s wastewater, stormwater, and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) experts are coordinating efforts with a variety of stakeholders representing the City, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, County Land and Water Conservation Departments, and private groups with similar interests. 

They are all working with the local agricultural community to learn about the key issues and how to improve water quality for everyone in the watershed. 

“If we’re involved in the facility planning process early-on, we can help communities identify the path that’s right for them,” Morrow said.

More Information

For more information, contact Pat Morrow.

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