Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Tower faces growth limits from treatment plant capacity

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 11/30/17

TOWER— This small city, seemingly poised for new development, has now come face-to-face with a significant limit to its growth: wastewater treatment capacity.

It’s a situation made worse by …

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Tower faces growth limits from treatment plant capacity

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TOWER— This small city, seemingly poised for new development, has now come face-to-face with a significant limit to its growth: wastewater treatment capacity.

It’s a situation made worse by the city council’s recent decision to connect the Hoodoo Point Campground and add several new RV sites there at the same time. That facility’s 97 campsites, most of which are occupied by RVs during the summer, are likely to consume most, if not all, of the remaining wastewater treatment capacity in the pond system that the city jointly owns and operates with Breitung Township.

That raises questions about the ability of the city to approve new hook-ups in a timely manner for a long list of projects in various stages of development, from harbor town homes to a new hotel, to a proposed privately-owned RV park.

City officials have known for as long as two years that anticipated new development was likely to tap the remaining capacity of the community’s wastewater facility. As currently designed, the system can theoretically treat up to 172,000 gallons of wastewater per day, although the state’s Pollution Control Agency typically resists allowing communities to use more than 85 percent of their treatment capacity, to limit the frequency of violations. The Tower-Breitung system is currently running at about 76 percent of capacity, according to John Thomas, who oversees wastewater regulatory compliance from the MPCA’s Duluth office. Even at 76 percent, the system has not always been able to comply with state standards for the quality of water it’s discharging into the East Two River. At its current volume, the system could likely handle an additional 15,000 gallons per day and still stay within 85 percent of its design capacity.

But that volume is expected to jump by at least 10,000 gallons per day when the city connects the Hoodoo Point Campground, according to wastewater manager Matt Tuchel. That sewer project is currently under construction and should be connected when the campground opens for the season next May.

Permit snafu

But first the city will need an MPCA permit to hook up the entire campground, as is currently planned. The city did apply for a permit in August, and received the go-ahead in September. But the city’s application only included the hook-up of six new RV sites that the city is creating as part of the half million-dollar campground project, not the entire campground.

The six sites are designed to accommodate a discharge of 160 gallons per day each, or 960 gallons for the six sites combined. The MPCA’s Thomas said the permit his agency issued in September only allows the six sites to connect, so the city will need to submit a revised application for the full project.

Given the much greater volume involved, the MPCA is likely to give the permit significantly more scrutiny, particularly since the extra flow is likely to push the system’s volume to about 82 percent of capacity.

Development

on hold?

The city’s decision to tap much of its remaining wastewater capacity to connect Hoodoo Point Campground, poses uncertainty for some of the community’s ongoing development, including plans for town homes at the harbor, a second RV park along the East Two River, a possible hotel, and additional residential development, much of it planned by Orlyn Kringstad and his Tower Vision 2025.

The first phase of that project includes 20 town homes at the harbor, but that development alone could add about 6,500 gallons per day of additional flow to the Tower-Breitung wastewater facility, likely putting the system above 85 percent of capacity. Kringstad has also been working to bring a new hotel and other commercial development, additional town homes, and affordable housing to the community, all of which would further add to the wastewater flow. Other projects either planned or underway include the new Lake Vermilion Cultural Center, an expansion of Lamppa Manufacturing, and the possible re-opening of the Iron Ore Bar.

Dave Rose, who is seeking to develop a 27-unit RV park along the East Two River, had planned to connect the facility to the municipal system, but he said the city’s engineer has since suggested he look at installing holding tanks instead, at least temporarily. Rose noted, however, that the Tower-Breitung Wastewater Board gave him the go-ahead to connect last year, but that was before the city had decided to add its own campground to the system. Rose said he’s willing to work with the city, but has yet to commit to using holding tanks for the project.

Yet if the city allows Rose to connect his RV park, it could delay the planned connection of town homes at the harbor, which are now slated for a spring 2018 construction start.

MPCA flexibility

While its mission may be to limit pollution, officials with the MPCA aren’t insensitive to the needs of small communities to foster new development, according to Thomas. While the agency uses 85 percent of design flow as a target maximum, he said it’s more of a guideline than a hard number. “At that point we start to look at whether a moratorium [on new connections], further ‘I and I’ reductions, or removal of projects are in order,” he said. “The first approach is to address I and I.” I and I, otherwise known as “inflow and infiltration,” is a chronic issue for most wastewater treatment systems. It comes from small cracks or gaps in the sewer lines, or from sump pumps that are illegally connected to the system, both of which allow ground or surface water to enter the system. However it occurs, I and I, if left unchecked, can quickly use up capacity and add treatment costs for wastewater facilities.

Whether or not the MPCA would require the city to hold off on new hookups if it’s in the process of addressing the issue isn’t clear. “It depends on the particulars of the situation, depending on the project, how big, and where they are at now,” said Thomas. “It’s not an easy position for us to be in. We try to work as much as we can with the community to try to be sure that doesn’t happen.”

At the same time, systems operating near capacity are more likely to struggle meeting water quality standards for their discharge— a fact that the Tower-Breitung system has already experienced. In 2014, when the system saw higher-than-usual flows, it significantly exceeded its discharge limits for phosphorus on several occasions. Phosphorus is a common pollutant that’s known to encourage algae growth in freshwater lakes, so it’s a key concern given that the Tower-Breitung system’s discharge winds its way into Lake Vermilion.

Phosphorus is best removed from wastewater through settling, and that means the longer that the water can remain in the stabilization ponds, the better, according to MPCA’s Thomas. But as wastewater systems near capacity that becomes more difficult, since if the ponds are allowed to fill too much, it can cause breaching or other damage to dikes, which can be costly to repair and allow discharge of poorly-treated wastewater.

The capacity issue is also complicated by the fact that wastewater flow can vary significantly from year-to-year, and that could provide the Tower-Breitung system a bit more wiggle room depending on the total volume of flow in 2017. When the MPCA indicates that the Tower-Breitung system is running at 76 percent of capacity, that’s based on a three-year running average, which includes the years 2014-2016. But 2014 was an extremely cold winter, which prompted many local residents to run their water continuously to prevent freeze-up. That additional winter flow pushed the system’s total volume to 85 percent of capacity that year, which contributed to the phosphorus violations. The next two years saw significantly lower flows. In 2015, the flow dropped to about 70 percent of capacity, followed by a modest increase to 73 percent in 2016. It’s the average of those three years that Thomas uses when he lists the system at 76 percent of capacity. But next year, when that three-year average no longer includes 2014, the system’s rated average could drop, although probably not by much according to Tuchel. “A lot will depend on our 2017 number,” he said, “and right now, it’s not looking too good.” Tuchel said the frequent rain this summer added to the system’s I and I, pushing the flow of wastewater higher. “We might gain a little bit, but probably not much,” he said.

Finding a solution

The city and the township have three main options for addressing the issue, none of which come without significant cost. The city could halt new development, which seems unlikely, particularly since some of the planned new construction, such as the harbor town homes, is subject to signed development agreements.

Barring that option, Tower and Breitung must either develop a plan for significantly reducing wastewater inflow to the three existing stabilization ponds, or build additional capacity, such as a fourth pond. Both the city and the township have been working for years to reduce I and I into the system and have made significant progress in reducing it over the past ten years according to Tuchel. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the recent progress means the easy and inexpensive ways to reduce I and I have already largely been tapped.

That leaves the final option, building additional capacity, as the most likely solution— and that’s a process that can take considerable time, according to Paul Scheirer, municipal wastewater section manager for the MPCA. “First, we encourage folks to look at all their options. Sometimes they get too focused on what they’re currently doing,” said Scheirer. Cities typically begin the process by hiring a consultant to help them analyze their potential alternatives.

While the Tower-Breitung system has room for a fourth stabilization pond, that’s not the only means to address capacity. According to Scheirer some communities opt for land application of some of their wastewater flow, although that typically works best in agricultural areas. “Cities and consultants usually go with whatever is the lowest-cost option,” said Scheirer.

Once all involved have agreed on an alternative, finding a source of funding is the next step, and that can take considerable time— typically about two years says Scheirer. Municipalities have an annual March 1 deadline to submit applications for funding through the state’s public facilities authority, which provides low interest loans for city water and sewer projects.

“Generally it’s a two-year track,” said the MPCA’s Bill Dunn, who oversees the wastewater and stormwater financial assistance program, which prepares the project priority list for public facilities loans.

While the MPCA frequently works with communities to try to tap available grant dollars, Dunn said such projects are mostly funded by loans, unless affordability becomes an issue. Affordability could be an issue in the case of Tower and Soudan, where median household incomes tend to be quite low, and that could allow the communities to qualify for more grant dollars. “You can apply for a grant to buy down 80 percent of the loan cost,” said Dunn.

Sewer costs are considered affordable if they amount to 1.4 percent of the community’s median annual household income. Water rates are considered affordable if they don’t exceed 1.2 percent. Currently, the city charges about $195.45 per quarter, or $782 annually for both water and sewer, including taxes and other assessments. Assuming a median household income of $38,000 in the two communities, ratepayers could expect to pay as much as $988 annually before rates would be considered unaffordable.

The issue of wastewater treatment capacity was set to be discussed during a special meeting of the Tower-Breitung Wastewater Board on Thursday evening, after presstime for the Timberjay’s Dec. 1 edition. A report on that meeting will appear in next week’s edition.

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Lee Peterson

This issue needs to be dealt with seriously. And timely.

Thursday, December 7, 2017