Creation of the District: The local situation and Middleton’s attempt to build a plant

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“Creation of the District: The local situation and Middleton’s attempt to build a plant” is the first in a four-part series outlining the formation of the Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District. This first part in the series outlines the push for a Middleton wastewater treatment plant. Visit the History section of our blog for additional articles in the series, as well as “Flow of history…” articles documenting the early years of wastewater treatment in the Madison area.

By Paul Nehm

A photograph of the 1927 construction site for the Nine Springs Wastewater Treatment Plant in Madison.
A photograph of the 1927 construction site for the Nine Springs Wastewater Treatment Plant in Madison.

At the beginning of 1929, the only communities with a sewerage system in the upper Yahara watershed were Madison, DeForest and Waunakee. Waunakee’s system had been installed in 1928, and DeForest’s system had been completed a year or two earlier. Both of these systems served populations of less than 650 people.

Besides providing convenience and increased health to the residents, the waterworks and sewerage systems were viewed as essential public services in the quest to attract businesses and residents to these small communities.

In addition to the local sewers, Madison’s system included two pumping stations and two wastewater treatment plants. The Main Pump Station, located at the corner of First Street and East Johnson Street, pumped wastewater to the Burke Sewage Disposal Plant while the Greenbush Station in Brittingham Park pumped to the newly opened Nine Springs Sewage Disposal Plant.

Treated effluent from the Burke Plant flowed into the Yahara River just upstream of Lake Monona. To avoid concerns about treated water entering the two Madison lakes, the location of the Nine Springs Plant was selected to allow the effluent from this plant to be discharged to the Yahara River downstream of Lake Monona. The city’s long-range plan was to eventually close the Burke Plant and treat all of the city wastewater at the Nine Springs Plant.

Multiple discharge sources into local lakes

The Burke Plant was not the only facility discharging treated water into the Madison lakes.

The Wisconsin Hospital for the Insane, now known as the Mendota Mental Health Institute, was located on the north side of Lake Mendota. This state-owned facility had constructed a plant in 1903 to treat its wastewater, with the treated water being discharged to Lake Mendota. Although a new treatment facility was built in 1910, a lack of state funding prevented the construction of the secondary treatment processes. Because of this, the wastewater being discharged to the lake was only partially treated.

Besides the discharges from municipal plants, there were 200 to 300 private septic systems just in the area between Madison and Middleton alone.

Middleton moves to establish its own system and plant

There did not seem to be a push for the creation of a metropolitan sewerage district, however, until the Village of Middleton got contracts for its own sewer system and treatment plant in the late summer of 1929.

At that time, the village had a population of around 800 people and already had a waterworks system, but a combination of cesspools and outdoor toilets made up its wastewater disposal system. The Middleton Times-Herald reported that “the older parts of Middleton are becoming honeycombed with cesspools. Things have reached a state where many residents and business places can scarcely find another place to dig a cesspool.”

In response to a petition for the creation of a sewerage system signed by 100 voters, the Middleton Board authorized A.B. Parsons, an engineer from Watertown, to design a sewerage system for the community in March of 1929. Mr. Parsons had previously designed the system for Waunakee and in just two months he completed the design for Middleton.

Developing the plans for Middleton Wastewater treatment

It was expected that only about 500 residents would be initially connected to the new system. Middleton originally proposed that the treatment plant would be merely a settling tank with the discharge of its effluent to Pheasant Branch Creek. The State Board of Health, at that time the regulatory agency for sanitary systems, did not approve this plan because of concerns about algae growth and odors. The village then proposed Imhoff tanks followed by sand filters; specifically, one Imhoff tank with settling and digestion, a sludge bed, a dosing chamber and one-half acre of sand filters.

The effluent from the plant would flow east into a 73-acre marsh and then eventually seep into Lake Mendota. It was anticipated that the weed growth in the marsh would absorb all of the nutrients in the effluent. Chlorination would be applied during the summer months.

The Middleton wastewater treatment plant was to be located just north of the intersection of University Avenue, Branch Street, and Mendota Street, about a half-mile west of Lake Mendota. Just southwest of the proposed location was a popular dance hall known as Broadway Gardens. It is surprising that there was no protest from the owners or customers of this facility for the close proximity of the proposed plant.

Approved by the Board of Health

The Board of Health was very supportive of the proposed treatment system. Three letters from the Board were published in the Middleton Times-Herald over the summer praising the community’s plans. The facility was touted as being able to provide a higher quality of effluent than the Madison plants because sand filters would be used instead of rock filters.

The Board tried to address any health concerns that residents had about discharging treated water to the lake. In a May 1929 letter from the Board to T. R. Daniels, the editor of the Middleton News-Herald, the Board claimed that the effluent from the plant would be “absolutely harmless upon its discharge into Lake Mendota.”

The plans for the treatment plant were approved by the Board in June of 1929. A requirement of the approval was that Middleton hires a full-time superintendent for the plant.

An unexpected price tag

Middleton officials received a surprise in July when the bids for the sewerage system came in about $13,000 above the engineer’s estimate. Since the bids were above the community’s bonding limit, all bids had to be rejected. Engineer Parsons then modified the plans to reduce the cost and the village received approval from voters to increase the bond issue. These changes made it possible to finance the project when new bids were received.

On September 27, 1929, the Middleton Village Board authorized the construction of its sewerage system. Barr Construction Company of Manitowoc was awarded the contract for laying the sewers, and George Nelson & Son contractors of Madison were awarded the contract to construct the treatment plant. The bid for plant construction was $14,368.

Some of the information for the article series and Middleton wastewater treatment was found in “Madison – A History of the Formative Years” by David V. Mollenhoff and in articles written by early leaders from Madison’s public works sector. The article was originally published in the Winter 2022 edition of the District’s newsletter, The Clarifier.