For more than two years, one of the four wastewater treatment ponds in the village of Poplar has sat unused, waiting for repairs.
It was damaged in the 2018 Father’s Day flood and the initial $36,000 award provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency was not enough to cover the scope of work needed.
Village, state and federal leaders, as well as a neighbor with political pull, have all had a hand in appealing that decision. Village Board president Randy Jones said it was a long, tough process that was initially denied.
“Once they denied our claim, I thought it was over,” he said.
FEMA requested additional information, and the village submitted what paperwork it could for the appeal. The last time the agency asked for information, Jones told the engineer to just send a letter outlining the repairs needed.
“There were no more maintenance records to give them. I really didn’t think it was going to work,” Jones said.
On Aug. 31, FEMA notified the village it was granting the additional $58,000 needed to repair the pond.
Jones credited Cody Kamroski with Wisconsin Emergency Management for his knowledge and help searching for possibilities during the process. Poplar resident and former state Sen. Bob Jauch set up a meeting to put Jones in touch with Madison leaders. Others involved included state Sen. Janet Bewley, D-Mason; state Rep. Nick Milroy, D-South Range; and U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis.
“I don’t know all what happened behind the scenes, but we had everybody from Nick Milroy and Janet Bewley and Tammy Baldwin and some people from the governor's office and the DNR ... and they all pitched in,” Jones said. “It was everything from our most local politicians to the governor’s office that I had contact with during this two-year-plus period. And I think it probably took every bit of that to get this to work.”
Jauch said it’s an example of how the wheels of government might work slowly, but if you have the right people, things get done.
“Everybody pitched in, and they finally got what may seem to be a small amount of money, especially in the scheme of the billions of dollars in damages FEMA’s paying for across the country in natural disasters,” Jauch said. “This was really an instrumental decision for a small community.”
"It's the difference between actually fixing it up right and letting it go and hoping for the best," Jones said.
The work needed to be done, but passing the additional cost on to the village’s approximately 140 sewer customers wasn’t an option for Jones. Customer sewer rates rose by 60% in 2018 to $98 per household, causing public outcry.
“We would’ve had to borrow money and figure out a way to pay it back without raising the sewer rate,” Jones said.
Even with the FEMA funding, he said the village will have to cover $18,000 that was spent on engineer fees for reports that bolstered the appeal.
The damaged pond has been offline since June 2018.
“We had to modify the system so we would bypass the final pond and use the preceding pond as our final pond,” Jones said.
The village has been meeting its required effluent limits, but couldn't continue this way indefinitely. Having all four ponds is particularly important in winter because more time is needed to treat wastewater in colder weather.
Jones said the village will be putting the project out for bid soon. Work is expected to begin either this fall or in the spring.
"I'm feeling great about this," he said. "It's finally going to happen."