Oconto River Guardian: Wisconsin Operator Protects A Community Resource

Public service runs in Steve Woodworth’s family. He and his team take pride in keeping the water on and the river clean in the Wisconsin City of Oconto.
Oconto River Guardian: Wisconsin Operator Protects A Community Resource
Woodworth and his team have worked diligently to update and improve an older facility and keep it in consistent compliance.

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Steve Woodworth would never claim to be some kind of celebrity, but the fact is most people around the City of Oconto know who he is.

That’s largely because he grew up as the son of the police chief and came up through the ranks reading residents’ water meters and fixing their water services. Today, as operator-in-charge of water and wastewater with the Oconto (Wisconsin) Department of Public Works, Woodworth appreciates the respect he gets from residents in his home community of 4,700.

He returns the favor with a dedication to quality service. That includes helping to keep costs (and rates) down by conserving potable water and saving energy at the city’s 1.81 mgd (design) wastewater treatment plant. His conservation measures were a big reason he won the 2014 Operator of the Year award for the Lake Michigan District from the Wisconsin Wastewater Operators Association.

Jeremy Wusterbarth, public works superintendent, nominated Woodworth for the award. “I’ve worked with Steve now for 15 years in the city,” he says. “He took over an older plant that had deficiencies, as all older plants do. He took charge and immediately started making changes to make it operate more smoothly and efficiently. That’s something I always appreciate about him.”

Up the ladder

Woodworth, an Oconto High School graduate, started work life as a meat cutter at a local grocery store. At the suggestion of Randy Monette, an uncle of his wife and a member of the utility board, Woodworth applied for and won a half-time job in what was then the water and wastewater utility, separate from Public Works.

He took that job in 1985, working in the lab and helping field crews as needed. As veteran colleagues retired, he steadily earned promotions. Attrition gradually reduced the water and sewer team from seven members to four, and the Public Works team from 15 to nine. Ultimately, city leaders merged the utility team with Public Works.

Woodworth, meanwhile, became a full-time water operator, then lead water operator and, in 2000, superintendent of Public Works. In 2003, he took the position he holds today. His team includes Adam Filz, wastewater operator; Joel Loberger and Matt Beekman, water operators; and Lisa Weigelt, lab director.

The drinking water system consists of three 550-foot-deep wells with pumps set at 350 feet, two water towers and 38 miles of distribution lines. The system distributes 500,000 gpd of chlorinated water. The operators’ duties go beyond the water and wastewater systems. “As part of Public Works, all of us do everything,” Woodworth says. “We go out and plow snow, work on construction, anything that’s needed. It’s a group effort.”

Protecting the river 

At the top of Woodworth’s agenda is the wastewater treatment plant, which discharges to the Oconto River, about a mile upstream from the bay of Green Bay, a prime walleye fishery that each year hosts national fishing tournaments.

“The original plant was a trickling filter facility built in 1948,” Woodworth says. “In 1974, they added the activated sludge process with mechanical surface aerators, which we still operate. Given the age of the plant, one of our challenges is to maintain it properly and keep it going with the resources we have.”

On that score, the record speaks for itself. Based on a three-year average, plant effluent contains 8 mg/L BOD (permit 30 mg/L), 4 mg/L TSS (30 mg/L) and .3 mg/L phosphorus (1.0 mg/L). The average daily flow of 550,000 gpd includes about 50,000 gpd from three small sanitary districts. The plant takes in about 9 million gallons of septage and holding tank waste per year.

Treatment begins with a fine screen and screen washer (JWC Environmental) installed five years ago. From there the flow goes through a Eutek TeaCup grit removal and washing system (Hydro International) and then into two primary clarifiers. Primary effluent enters a wet well and is pumped up to the trickling filter. The flow then passes through a chemical feed building where alum is added for phosphorus removal. From there the flow is split into four aeration basins (two north and two south tanks) equipped with the mechanical aerators. 

To enhance and automate the aeration process, and save energy in the bargain, Woodworth ordered a pair of Aire-O2 Triton process aerators (Aeration Industries International) for each basin. Mounted to the basin sidewalls, they operate on a feedback loop with in-line oxygen sensors. “The mechanical aerators run 24/7,” says Woodworth. “If we get a load that requires more oxygen, the Triton aerators will kick in, too.” Each unit has a blower that delivers air through a tube to a motor-driven impeller, which mixes the air with the water.

Each pair of aeration basins feeds its own final clarifier; the flow is first dosed with polymer to enhance settling. Secondary effluent is chlorinated, dechlorinated with sodium bisulfite and released to the river.

Solids innovation

The solids side of the process went through a major change 20 years ago. The plant used to surface-apply liquid anaerobically digested biosolids on farmland, but ran into difficulty with a state requirement to provide 180 days’ worth of storage through the winter.

In 1995, the plant discontinued digestion; the digesters now serve as storage tanks for primary and gravity-thickened waste activated sludge. The mixed sludge is dewatered in a belt press (Alfa Laval Ashbrook Simon-Hartley) and lime stabilized. The resulting Class B cake is kept in a storage building, and a contractor spreads it on farm fields in spring and fall.

“Because of the lime, phosphorus and nitrogen in the material, farmers look forward to receiving it,” says Woodworth. “We have no problem finding the fields — we have to spread the wealth. We have about 800 acres of farmland permitted, and we only use 40 to 80 acres in a given year. We rotate among the farms.”

Never satisfied

While the biosolids program is a seasonal matter, keeping the plant running is a year-round venture. One of the biggest challenges is finding parts for the equipment. Woodworth looks to Motion Industries in nearby Marinette for replacement parts such as bearings and seals. Beyond that, “Given the size of the city, it can be difficult to maintain a good equipment replacement fund. You have to know your limitations on how much you can repair and when to replace.” 

But Woodworth and Filz do more than maintain the status quo — they look for ways to make things run better. For example, four years ago, Woodworth had booster pumps (Dakota Pump) installed to deliver final effluent for reuse in washing the fine screen and the biosolids press. That saves about 2.2 million gallons of potable water a year, worth $9,000 at residential rates.

The team has tackled energy conservation, too. The Triton aerators replaced older, less efficient models and cut power costs substantially. A $22,000 grant from Focus on Energy, an energy-saving and renewable energy program sponsored by Wisconsin’s utilities, helped pay for the $76,000 project.

In addition, last year Woodworth shut down the plant’s north pair of aeration basins and north final clarifier, since the south pair and its clarifier can handle typical loads. “We’re saving electricity, because that’s four aerators and a final clarifier that we’re not using,” says Woodworth. “We can always fire up the north side if the flow increases.”

An $8,000 lighting upgrade project replaced incandescent lamps with efficient T-8 fluorescent lighting throughout the treatment plant. The team has also replaced older motors throughout the facility with high-efficiency models.

Outside the treatment plant, Woodworth’s team takes care of 42 miles of collections system and 13 lift stations. Upgrades to the sewers have eliminated most of the original clay pipe; the vast majority now consists of concrete and PVC. The team uses a Vactor combination truck for routine jetting and cleaning.

The water distribution piping is also in generally good condition, consisting of mainly PVC and ductile iron. “Last winter, as cold as it was, we only had one main break caused by frost,” says Woodworth.

A strong team

Woodworth credits much of the water and sewer systems’ success to his team: “We work very well together. They’re all hard-working, very knowledgeable people. After being here so long, I know all the history. They come to me with the ‘Do you remember …’ questions. It’s good to know that when I retire, I won’t have to worry about the place.”

Filz, hired three years ago, is a licensed plumber whose family is in the plumbing business. “He handles the dewatering press process,” says Woodworth. “He already has almost all his certifications. He’s very ambitious.”

Weigelt has 25 years of experience and is a certified operator with an advanced lab classification. Loberger brings electrical expertise gained from working with area industries. Beekman, a former summer employee at the plant, owns a mechanical engineering degree from the University of Wisconsin-Platteville.

Wusterbarth praises Woodworth’s leadership skills: “He does a tremendous job with his team, talking through issues with them when necessary. He does a terrific job of communicating with the employees, and with me.”

Challenges do remain. An engineering study commissioned last year looked at changes the treatment plant may need to operate efficiently for another 25 years. “Steve has played and will continue to play a big role in that,” Wusterbarth says. Further aeration improvements are likely to be on the agenda.

And then there’s the challenge of keeping up with regulatory requirements. Woodworth doesn’t expect any tightening of the effluent phosphorus limit in a new permit from the state Department of Natural Resources, expected later this year.

He does need to address mercury. “We have asked the DNR for a variance from our mercury limit of 1.6 micrograms/liter,” he says. “What we have to do for that variance is create a pollution minimization program.”

That means visiting potential mercury sources in the community — dental and medical offices, industrial facilities, heating and air conditioning businesses, automotive shops — to make sure any mercury they handle is disposed of properly. It also means developing a community recycling program for used fluorescent lighting. “Oconto isn’t very big, but it’s still a challenge for us to do all that with the manpower we have,” Woodworth says.

Counting the rewards

Looking back on his career, Woodworth is grateful for the chance to be of service: “My dad [Oren Woodworth] served the city for years. He was the police chief. I grew up knowing what it meant to work for the city. I’m glad to have the opportunity to do so. People know they can call me, and I can usually help them out.

“A lot of people don’t realize there are careers in water and wastewater. The pay is good, and with the state retirement program you can definitely have a good pension by the time you retire. It’s also an interesting career because of the way the rules and regulations change, and everything you have to know about the industry.

“Looking back, I don’t think I would do things any different. I don’t know where I’d be if I had ended up as a meat cutter all these years — a lot more arthritis probably. It’s been a rewarding career.”   



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