NEW Water's Quest for Effluent Nutrient Reduction Reaches Out Across a Major Watershed

Hatfield Award winner Tom Sigmund leads NEW Water’s initiatives to bolster resource recovery and curb phosphorus in its watershed.

NEW Water's Quest for Effluent Nutrient Reduction Reaches Out Across a Major Watershed

As executive director for NEW Water, Tom Sigmund has led a program of extensive outreach to the district’s member communities and to the region’s watershed. 

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Rising in the ranks as an engineer and designer of clean-water plants, Tom Sigmund, P.E., likely never dreamed that someday he’d be dealing with soil conservation practices on farms.

But today that’s part of his job as executive director of NEW Water, the clean-water utility serving Green Bay and 14 other Wisconsin communities in a 285-square-mile service area. Sigmund, winner of a 2018 William D. Hatfield Award for excellence in plant operations from the Central States Water Environment Association, has led NEW Water’s transition to a focus on resource recovery and on a watershed approach to reducing phosphorus inputs to the Lower Fox River and the bay of Green Bay, an arm of Lake Michigan.

The phosphorus campaign, being executed under an adaptive management provision in state regulations, represents a cost-effective alternative to a $100 million upgrade at the 49 mgd (design) NEW Water treatment plant in Green Bay. On the resource side, the utility has built a Resource Recovery and Electrical Energy facility that captures energy from biogas and struvite fertilizer from the solids stream.

“When I came here 12 years ago, we were really good at treating wastewater,” Sigmund says. “We were in our fifth year of 100% permit compliance, and that has continued. We were focused on optimizing what we did inside the fence, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But when we looked at the future and our place in the environment, we saw that where we were going to have the most impact was outside the fence. We started looking out toward the watershed, and we’ve been doing that ever since.”

Background in design

Sigmund started his career in 1982 after earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in civil and environmental engineering from the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

He began with a small engineering firm in Wisconsin, writing operations and maintenance manuals and doing some troubleshooting for new wastewater treatment plants. After a year there, he went to work for the CH2M Hill consulting firm (since purchased by JACOBS) and stayed there for most of the next 24 years, mainly doing designs for municipal treatment facilities.

Among memorable projects, he lists a plant rehabilitation project in Muscatine, Iowa; a new regional facility in Beloit in southern Wisconsin; a variety of water and wastewater projects in New Mexico and Texas; and a major facility upgrade for the Little Blue Valley Sewer District near Kansas City, Missouri. He worked as a consultant to the Green Bay Metropolitan Sewerage District (since branded as NEW Water) for about a decade before being hired as executive director. 

Along the way, during facility design, construction and startup projects, Sigmund developed an appreciation for plant operators: “I look at our staff here, and they are incredibly skilled, dedicated and inquisitive. They’re always trying to figure things out. When something isn’t working quite the way they think it should, they’re digging into it.

“Our job is protecting public health, and they take that very seriously. Whether they’re treatment operators, electrical instrumentation specialists, mechanics or field service technicians, they put in a lot of time to make sure we do it right. They’ve done what’s needed to achieve 16 years of continuous 100% permit compliance, and that is not easy to do.”

Sigmund notes that most new hires come with two-year degrees from Northeast Wisconsin Technical College or Fox Valley Technical College, or with four-year environmental science degrees from UW-Green Bay or UW-Stevens Point. Jake Becken, a treatment lead, holds a master’s degree in sustainability from UW-Green Bay.  

Expanding the mission

A key issue facing Sigmund and the team is the need to reduce phosphorus discharges to Green Bay, which during summer develops a hypoxic zone (dissolved oxygen below 2.0 ppm). The Department of Natural Resources is set to impose a phosphorus discharge limit on NEW Water of 0.1 or 0.2 mg/L, well below the current permit limit of 1.0 mg/L.

“We looked at the expense of meeting that by upgrading this facility,” Sigmund says. “Then we worked with the DNR, other large utilities in the state and some nongovernment organizations and asked, ‘Is there a better, cheaper way to do it?’ The answer was yes. And so for us, it’s going to be adaptive management.”

That means focusing outside the fence and working throughout the watershed. To further that activity, Sigmund created the director of environmental programs position, first held by Bill Hafs, who has retired, and now by Jeff Smudde. Another logical step was to rebrand the utility, whose legal name is the Green Bay Metropolitan Sewerage District.

“We knew we would have to build to relationships with people, some of them not even our customers,” Sigmund says. “We asked, ‘How will we facilitate the conversations? How will we introduce ourselves?’ To say, ‘I’m from the Green Bay Metro Sewerage District,’ that’s not the best opener, and it doesn’t represent what we do. People don’t want to talk about wastewater treatment or sewage. We determined that what they want to talk about is water.” And so in 2013 the utility adopted the NEW Water brand. The NEW connotes renewal and a transformational approach; it’s also a commonly used acronym for northeast Wisconsin and reflects the utility’s regional service area.

Reaching out

Tricia Garrison, public affairs and education manager, reports positive reactions to the branding: “People get a sense of pride when they feel like they’re helping to protect our water resources. With everything we do at our facilities, we try to tie it to the water resources in our backyard and to the Great Lakes. Once we change the conversation, it opens doors for us as an organization.”

The brand’s good reception has helped in outreach to the watershed, largely to farmers of whom NEW Water can only ask for voluntary cooperation. The work began five years ago with a pilot called the Silver Creek Project, covering about 4,800 acres in a subwatershed.

The highly successful project had a long list of partner organizations and about 15 cooperating landowners and farmers who deployed best management practices including grassed waterways, streamside buffer strips, and no-till and other innovative farming practices, all serving to keep soil and nutrients in place instead of running off into the stream. The work also included wetland restorations. 

A significant cropping innovation was interseeding, which involves planting a cover crop between corn rows after the corn has sprouted. As the corn grows, it shades the cover crop, which goes dormant. After harvest, the cover crop resumes growing and helps hold the soil through the winter.

“In the Silver Creek Project area, typically about 30% of the land had something growing on it during the winter — wheat, alfalfa or another cover crop,” Sigmund says. “In the last two years, through our project, we had 80% to 90% of that land in cover crops.”

The next step is a more comprehensive adaptive management plan covering an area on the west side of the bay of Green Bay. “We have submitted a draft plan, and we’re working with the DNR to get that approved so we can work with farmers in the area,” Sigmund says. “We’re at the very front end of watershed work that will last for 20 years, if not longer.”

Staying connected

Meanwhile, Sigmund and the team keep NEW Water looking ahead to new challenges. To stay close to the team, Sigmund spends significant time outside his office: “I try to understand what it is they’re doing. Probably three times a week, I’m out in the control room or in the facility.”

He interacts more often than that with Bruce Bartel, treatment manager; Pat Wescott, director of operations; and Pat Smits, maintenance manager. Other key team members include Adam Butry, health, safety and security coordinator; and Nate Qualls, director of technical services.

As another way to stay plugged in with the staff, Sigmund three years ago instituted monthly Lunch with Tom sessions. “I realized that with about 100 employees here, I wasn’t seeing as many people as I wanted to on a regular enough basis,” he says. “We invite somebody from each of the divisions, and we have lunch with five or six people. It’s a small group, and it’s very informal. It helps me and everybody in the room understand what others are doing.”

Outside the walls of NEW Water, Sigmund serves on the board of the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, and he chaired the Water Resources Utility of the Future Task Force organized by NACWA and the Water Environment Federation.

Facing the future

There’s plenty of work on the horizon for NEW Water. Emerging contaminants are gaining attention; they include pharmaceuticals and per- and polyfluorinated substances (also known as PFAS), ubiquitous chemicals used in products ranging from flame retardant fabrics to nonstick cookware to fabric softeners.

Like most clean-water utilities, NEW Water and its customer municipalities struggle with wipes and other nondisintegrating materials that people improperly flush. Most of the items get trapped in headworks screens, “But some still gets through and causes significant maintenance problems for our pumps and other equipment,” Sigmund says.

“Another big concern is inflow and infiltration. Our facility’s typical flow is about 30 mgd, but when it rains hard and the groundwater table is high, we’ve seen upward of 120 mgd. Some of the leakage starts with the homeowners, some of it is in the streets, and some of it is in our interceptor pipes.

“About two years ago, we completed a pretty comprehensive interceptor master plan that identified areas where we have too much flow. The pipes may need repair or replacement, and some may need bigger capacity.

“We have no shortage of things to be working on.”

R2E2 (No, it’s not a ‘Star Wars’ droid)

NEW Water completed its Resource Recovery and Electrical Energy (R2E2) facility in 2018. It uses biogas to generate heat and electricity for plant purposes and extracts struvite fertilizer from the solids stream. The solids are burned in a fluidized bed incinerator (SUEZ Water Technologies & Solutions) that replaced an old multiple-hearth furnace. 

“Our solids handling facilities for the most part were built in the mid-1970s,” says Tom Sigmund, P.E., executive director. “Our staff takes excellent care of what we have, but at some point, it just wears out. We also had some regulatory challenges.”

An advisory committee of utility staff and external stakeholders analyzed solids processes to identify technology that would be feasible, reliable, safe, environmentally friendly and cost-effective.

“We looked at all the technologies available to deal with solids,” Sigmund recalls. “There is so much dairy waste in this area that land application of biosolids is hard to do. Landfilling doesn’t make any sense. We looked at producing dried pellets, but that’s a big investment and there’s not much of a market for the product. We knew how to do incineration, and so our challenge was to figure out how to recover and reuse as much energy as possible.”

The R2E2 facility includes two anaerobic digesters (DN Tanks) that produce biogas, which is burned in a pair of 20-cylinder, 2-MW engine-generators (Caterpillar). The electricity and heat they produce is projected to cut energy costs by half and save more than $2 million per year. Heat from the engine exhaust and jacket water, along with heat from the incinerator, is captured by way of heat exchangers in a hot-oil loop.

The hot oil keeps the digesters at the optimum temperature, provides building heating and feeds a disc dryer (Haarslev Industries) that raises the solids content of centrifuged sludges from 22%-23% to 39%-42% before it is fed to the incinerator. The three dewatering centrifuges were supplied by Centrisys/CNP.

The struvite recovery system, supplied by Multiform Harvest (since purchased by Ostara Nutrient Recovery Technologies), yields struvite granules that Ostara will purchase under an off-take agreement and process for sale as a slow-release fertilizer.

Sigmund observes, “I look at us as a factory. We take raw materials in, and we try to extract as much as we can out of them to recover those resources.”


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