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Wheeler must reduce phosphorus discharge by half

By LeAnn R. Ralph

WHEELER  —  According to the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) implementation plan for the Red Cedar River Watershed, the Village of Wheeler must cut the phosphorus discharge from the wastewater treatment facility in half.

The Wheeler Village Board held a special meeting October 16 to discuss the village’s phosphorus discharge with Paul Gont, the village’s wastewater engineer with Short Elliott Hendrickson (SEH); Mike Vollrath, a wastewater supervisor with the state Department of Natural Resources out of the Eau Claire office; and Lori Fassbender, a wastewater engineer in the DNR’s west central region.

Phosphorus is the nutrient that fuels toxic algae blooms on Tainter Lake and Lake Menomin.

The Red Cedar River Watershed covers 1,900 square miles.

Wheeler has missed several deadlines for the implementation plan, including submitting an operational evaluation report by June 30, 2014; submitting a facility plan by March 31, 2015; and construction plans and specifications by September 30, 2015.

The interim limit for phosphorus discharge from the Wheeler wastewater facility is 350 pounds per year. The final limit will be 152 pounds per year.

According to documents provided to the village board, in 2009, Wheeler discharged 248 pounds of phosphorus. In 2010, the village discharged 373 pounds of phosphorus. In 2011, the village discharged 310 pounds of phosphorus. And in 2012, the village discharged 321 pounds of phosphorus.

Overall, the village is under the interim limit for phosphorus but will have to reduce the phosphorus discharge by half to meet the final limit, Gont said.

“You have a level you can achieve with chemical treatment,” he said.

Phosphate soap

Fassbender asked if Wheeler has any commercial operations or schools that would use phosphate soap to clean equipment.

Asking industries to change the kind of soap used to clean equipment can help reduce the phosphorus discharge, she said.

Unfortunately, Wheeler does not have any schools or industrial or commercial operations that would use phosphate soap and is largely residential, said Robin Goodell, village clerk-treasurer.


Wheeler could add ferric chloride or aluminum sulfate (commonly known as alum) to treat the water coming into the wastewater treatment lagoon, Gont said.

Ferric chloride or alum both bind with the phosphorus and cause it to settle out to the bottom of the lagoon.

Alum creates a tighter bond with the phosphorus, but it must be kept above freezing at 40 or 45 degrees Fahrenheit. Ferric chloride has a lower temperature at which it freezes but does not bind quite as well with the phosphorus, Gont said.

Gont suggested Wheeler could try several approaches, such as using the alum during the summer when there is no danger of it freezing, to see if the alum would reduce the phosphorus discharge enough overall to bring the village into compliance with the TMDL.

Wheeler also could start the ferric chloride at the beginning of the year and use it until the discharge has come under the limit and then discontinue the ferric chloride until the next year, he said.

The initial phase of figuring out which approach will work best to bring the Wheeler wastewater treatment facility into compliance is known as a pilot study.

The village could add chemicals to the lagoon, evaluate for 12 months, and then see if the discharge meets the limit by October of 2016, Fassbender said.

The cost per year for Wheeler for ferric chloride would be around $6,400, Gont said.

Wheeler has not yet set a budget for 2016, so Gont suggested putting the cost for chemical into the budget for next year and starting the pilot study after the first of the year.

Phosphorus does the most environmental harm of fueling algae blooms during the warm summer months, Fassbender noted.


Wheeler has missed the deadlines for the operational evaluation report, the facility plan and the construction plans and specifications if any modifications are needed for the wastewater treatment facility, Vollrath said.

The missed deadlines could be addressed in a single report submitted by Gont that describes how Wheeler is going to implement the pilot study, along with a timeline for implementing the pilot study, he said.

As for the village’s annual Compliance Maintenance Annual Report for the wastewater treatment facility, overall the report has been good, except the village has had problems with Biological Oxygen Demand (BOD) measurements, Gont said.

BOD measures the amount of oxygen used by microorganisms to break down organic material.

The BOD measurements could be the result of duck weed or algae, Gont said.

Wheeler received a grade of “C” on the financial portion of the CMAR because of the equipment replacement fund, Fassbender said, adding that the utility should have more money available in the fund.

Going back to 2010, BOD has been the wastewater treatment facility’s biggest issue, she said.

Higher BOD levels are common during the switchover in May, Gont said.

Economic variance

Given the median household income in Wheeler and the percentage of the household income going to pay sewer bills, it is possible Wheeler would qualify for an economic variance, Gont said.

The median household income in Wheeler is $30,313 per year.

Median means that half of the incomes are above $30,313 and half are below.

Wheeler has 114 residential customers that use a total of 3.4 million gallons of water per year.

The average residential sewer charge is $495 per year, which works out to be 1.63 percent of the median household income, Gont said.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency considers between 1 percent and 2 percent a moderate impact, he said.

Other factors can also contribute to economic stress for a community, Vollrath said, such as unemployment, the number of jobs available, the municipality’s bond rating, overall debt, property tax revenue and the property tax collection rate.

A percentage of median household income over 2 percent is considered to be a high impact, he said.


In addition to the chemical itself, Wheeler will need a feed system and a storage system as well as an eye wash station and a drench shower, as per Occupational, Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards, Gont said.

The drench shower must be capable of providing 20 gallons per minute for 15 minutes of water, or in other words 300 gallons, that is at least room temperature, he said.

Wheeler also will need somewhere to store the chemicals, and if the village uses alum, the storage space will have to be heated, Gont said.

All together, upfront costs might be $100,000 for the village to be set up to properly apply the chemicals, he said, noting that with the use of a chemical to cause phosphorus to settle out, the lagoon will have more sludge that must be removed too.

Wheeler’s general fund budget for 2015 was a little over $187,000.

Considering the cost of the chemical, the payments to cover the cost of the shower and storage facility, and additional testing costs for phosphorus, Wheeler could be adding $20,000 per year to the village’s sewer budget of about $70,000, Gont said.

Adding $19,000 or $20,000 to the sewer budget “is a hefty increase,” he said.

The average increase in the sewer bill would be about $144 per year, bringing the average sewer bill up to $639 per year, Gont said.

If the upfront costs are $100,000, the additional cost would put the percentage of median household income over 2 percent, which means Wheeler could be eligible for an economic variance, he said.

EPA approval

Wheeler has not yet started the pilot study, so it is impossible to know what the costs will be right now, Vollrath said.

If Wheeler were to apply for an economic variance, it would have to go to the EPA for approval, he said.

Fassbender suggested that Wheeler do the pilot study, obtain firmer costs for implementation and then apply for the economic variance when the village’s wastewater permit is due again.

Wastewater treatment permits from the DNR are issued for five years, and the current Wheeler permit expires September 30, 2018.

Applications are due six months prior to the permit’s expiration date, so the application deadline for Wheeler’s next permit would be March 30, 2018.

“We can’t say now if it would be approved. The EPA has the final approval,” Fassbender said.

Vollrath suggested that Wheeler also could apply for grants to help pay for the cost of reducing the phosphorus discharge, such as the grants available from the Clean Water Fund.

Wheeler may be eligible for 60 percent cost sharing with a Clean Water Fund grant, he said.

Gont agreed that Wheeler should conduct the pilot study for a year or two to see how much phosphorus can be removed from the discharge to the Hay River, obtain firmer cost estimates and then apply for an economic variance at the time of the next permit application.


Since Wheeler missed several deadlines, Fassbender said she would be issuing a notice of non-compliance and enforcement action.

The letter will document the violation and will include information about what was discussed at the special meeting of the Wheeler Village Board regarding the phosphorus reduction implementation plan, she said.

The Wheeler Village Board’s next regular monthly meeting is November 10, and the village board is expected to take action on the implementation plan and to establish a timeline to send to the DNR pertaining to phosphorus reduction.

The timeline is due to the DNR by November 13.