TOWER— For years, the Tower-Breitung Wastewater Board has operated in relative obscurity. But the revelation that the communities are suddenly faced with a potential shortage of wastewater …
TOWER— For years, the Tower-Breitung Wastewater Board has operated in relative obscurity. But the revelation that the communities are suddenly faced with a potential shortage of wastewater capacity, and that the issue could hamper pending new development in Tower, raised the profile of the board’s decisions.
The subject of capacity was top of the agenda for the board at their regular meeting on Wednesday, Dec. 20. The city of Tower’s recent decision to connect the Hoodoo Point Campground to the municipal system is expected to consume most of the system’s remaining capacity and that’s prompted the board to consider how to respond. “The campground puts you at about 82 percent of capacity,” noted City Engineer Jason Chopp. “At 85 percent, the MPCA is going to want to see your plan.”
“We’re at that point,” said Breitung Supervisor and wastewater board member Greg Dostert. “We can’t stick our heads in the sand.”
Breitung Supervisor Chuck Tekautz agreed, but noted that the timing is far from ideal. “Look at our books,” he said. “We’re pretty well down to bare bones in terms of finances.” Indeed, the board later approved cashing in the wastewater district’s final CD in order to pay bills for December. “We need to know how much it’s going to cost,” he said.
The board agreed to seek estimates from engineering firms in time for their Jan. 17 meeting, at which point the board will likely have to make a decision on whether to apply for public facilities funding in 2018. The annual application is due March 1, which means if the city misses the deadline, it would push the timeline for new capacity back at least another year. As it is, meeting the deadline is no guarantee that the board will obtain the funds it will need to expand its treatment capacity any time soon. Applications to the state’s Public Facilities Authority are ranked based on need. In some cases, projects are funded quickly, while others can languish for years. Normally, a project takes about three years from initial application to construction, according to MPCA officials, which could push any solution out to 2020 or 2021 at the earliest.
That could pose a problem for prospective new development. The first phase of harbor town homes, now slated to begin construction in May, would add about 4,800 gallons to the system, and a proposed new RV park is expected to add another 2,000 gallons. Those two projects, combined, would likely push the system to 85 percent of capacity. While Chopp said the wastewater district could go above that level, he said the MPCA would likely have something to say about it.
System operator Matt Tuchel said he’d be reluctant to go above that level himself, given previous phosphorus violations in 2014, when the system operated at 85 percent of capacity due to heavier than expected flows during a very cold winter when many residents ran water to prevent freezeups. “It makes it harder to remain compliant,” he said.
And that’s a concern to some residents of Lake Vermilion, which is where treated wastewater from the system’s stabilization ponds ends up. “My concern is for the lake,” said Isle of Pines resident Lee Peterson, who spoke to the board last week under public input. Peterson, who operated a wastewater facility himself in the past, said he’s concerned that the city of Tower is adding flow to the system that it may not be able to safely treat.
“When we’re this close to capacity, there could be more problems like in 2014,” conceded Tuchel, although he noted that the system hasn’t had any violations since then. “We’ve had a series of mild winters, and drought,” responded Peterson.
Dry years typically reduce wastewater flow because of reduced inflow and infiltration, or I and I, and mild winters typically mean fewer residents run their water continuosly.
Chopp suggested that both the city and the township could try to reduce their I and I over the next couple years as a stopgap measure to reduce flow until new capacity can be brought online.
Chopp noted that the city is fixing old sewer lines at the campground, which likely contributed considerable I and I into the campground’s existing mound system. That additional volume may have contributed to the perception that the campground’s treatment system was close to failing.