EDITORIAL: Power failures and the cost of water

The price of dirty water is about to take a significant jump in the City Port Washington. The Common Council last week approved a 6.8% increase in the sewage fee added to residents’ water bills to cover the rising cost of wastewater treatment.

The increase is justified, needed to cover the cost of new wastewater plant equipment, including an electric generator with a half-million-dollar price tag.

The city water utility has no choice—the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is insisting on the generator to provide backup power. Yet city water customers might well wonder why they have to pay a price for the failures of a downtown electrical infrastructure that has proved to be strangely unreliable.

Twice in the past year, the wastewater treatment plant was forced by electrical failures to divert untreated sewage into Lake Michigan. When both primary and secondary power sources provided by We Energies failed last fall, an estimated 300,000 gallons of raw sewage bypassed the treatment facility and went directly into the lake.

Wastewater Supt. Dan Buehler explained: “We always used to have backup power available. Backup power was very dependable. Something’s changed. In the last three or four years, it seems like both sources (of power) go down.”

Downtown businesses and government offices can relate. Electrical power failures in the city center have been more frequent in recent years, similar to the wastewater plant’s experience, and puzzling in that the downtown has been left in the dark at times while other parts of the city and the surrounding area have been unaffected.

A particularly consequential downtown power failure last summer was responsible for costly damage to computers, servers and other electrical equipment in a number of businesses, as well as the Ozaukee County Courthouse and City Hall. There have been similar episodes, and shorter outages limited to the downtown are not uncommon.

Electricity, of course, doesn’t flow directly to the downtown from We Energies’ Port Washington generating station, but it is ironic nonetheless that the business center of the city that is host to the massive power plant looming over the downtown with its complex of stacks and towers as it supplies a vast regional power grid seems to be deprived of electric power more often than other areas.

At the wastewater plant, the electrical failures came with not only a dollar cost, but with the environmental cost of sending pollution to the lake. So the expense of the big generator that will keep the plant going when power lines can’t deliver should be considered money well spent—and all the more so in this age of climate change.

Climate change is blamed for the record amount of rainfall in the Great Lakes region that is putting increased pressure on lakeshore wastewater treatment facilities. Scientists at the School of Freshwater Sciences at UW-Milwaukee are predicting that Milwaukee could see as much a 20% more untreated sewage going into the lake in coming decades because of increased rainfall.

Wisconsin set a record in 2019 with more rainfall than ever before recorded. In a recent Wisconsin Public Radio interview, Steve Vavrus, senior scientist at UW-Madison’s Nelson institute Center for Climatic Research, explained that the surging moisture in the region is a consequence of weather changes driven by Earth’s warming.

The unprecedented volume of precipitation is most dramatically evident in the rise of the level of Lake Michigan, now hovering around the highest point ever recorded. This, along with the increased ferocity of storms in these chaotic climatic times, was responsible for the lakeshore damage seen in Port Washington and elsewhere along the lakeshore last weekend.

Fortunately, the seawall protecting the wastewater plant is robust and high enough to protect the facility as the lake continues to rise, at least for the near future.

The plant—or rather its product of clean, safe effluent—is more threatened by water coming from land in the increasing volume of storm runoff that can overwhelm the best treatment plants. Thanks to the city’s water rate payers, it should soon have a dependable backup source of power to attempt to deal with it when conventional electric service fails.

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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
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