What a year, eh? The RiverTown newsroom looked back on 2020 to compile lists of the most important news and sports stories covered by the Star-Observer and Republican Eagle. Check back to Top 10 Stories of 2020 over the next few days to see what made the cut.

ROBERTS -- Fifteen months ago, the Village Board joined Public Works Director John Bond, his staff and executives from CLEARAS Water Recovery at a ground-breaking ceremony. They were commemorating the start of a revolutionary new water treatment system that harnesses the appetite of algae.

Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020, the village and CLEARAS celebrated activating the Advanced Biological Nutrient Recovery system or ABNR, the first of its kind in the world.

Years from now, the chaos and calamity of the COVID-19 pandemic will pale in comparison to the battle for clean water, experts say. Potable water is at the heart of our existence and finding sustainable ways to clean water in the face of climate change and unchecked population growth will be critical to our survival.

CLEARAS’ proprietary technology uses algae and photosynthesis to remove phosphorus and other nutrients, solids and heavy metals from municipal wastewater to a level better than Wisconsin's stringent levels while providing a revenue stream from the sale of a desirable medical grade plastic produced as a byproduct of the algae process. Tom Lindfors / RiverTown Multimedia
CLEARAS’ proprietary technology uses algae and photosynthesis to remove phosphorus and other nutrients, solids and heavy metals from municipal wastewater to a level better than Wisconsin's stringent levels while providing a revenue stream from the sale of a desirable medical grade plastic produced as a byproduct of the algae process. Tom Lindfors / RiverTown Multimedia

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In 2019, the village entered into a $3.6 million contract with CLEARAS Water Recovery to implement the ABNR system in a “bolt-on” application to the existing wastewater treatment facility.

“Given the state of Wisconsin’s emphasis on water quality, the village of Roberts set out to identify and implement a sustainable solution that could meet both our current and future, anticipated regulatory requirements,” Bond said.

The COVID-19 pandemic affected supply chain inventories and that, combined with weather and construction delays, put the Roberts' project behind schedule by several months. Despite the challenges, Bond and Project Delivery Director Autumn Fisher said they worked closely together to overcome the obstacles and in the end, built the first large scale algae powered water treatment facility in the country.

With more than 600 water treatment facilities scattered across the state, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has closely monitored the project from the start. DNR officials see the algae solution as an environmentally sustainable and economically viable answer to meeting the state’s stringent new phosphorus standard.

The village’s primary focus was to reduce the phosphorus level in its wastewater to meet the standard specified in its Wisconsin Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit. However, the ABNR system also addresses ammonia and nitrogen levels and has the potential to address additional pollutants such as nitrates, nitrites, solids and heavy metals which are likely to be regulated more tightly by the DNR in the future.

CLEARAS CEO Greg Guard speaks about the historic partnership with the village of Roberts at the ribbon-cutting ceremony Sunday, Dec. 7, 2020. On the left is Jordan Lind, the company's chief business development officer.  Tom Lindfors / RiverTown Multimedia
CLEARAS CEO Greg Guard speaks about the historic partnership with the village of Roberts at the ribbon-cutting ceremony Sunday, Dec. 7, 2020. On the left is Jordan Lind, the company's chief business development officer. Tom Lindfors / RiverTown Multimedia

“Our existing treatment process will stay exactly the same except we will no longer add aluminum sulfate to remove phosphorus. The algae will take over that job. This will also take care of nitrogen, ammonia, nitrate and nitrite. The ammonias, nitrates and nitrites, and phosphorus were the three big drivers. Obviously, phosphorus was the biggest driver. We’re testing at no detect every day,” Bond said.

CLEARAS’ proprietary technology uses algae and photosynthesis to remove phosphorus and other nutrients, solids and heavy metals from municipal wastewater to a level that exceeds the stringent levels imposed by the DNR while providing a revenue stream from the sale of a desirable medical grade plastic produced as a by-product of the algae process.

Fully operational, the Roberts facility will be capable of processing more than 100,000 gallons of effluent a day with an average, incoming phosphorus level of 1.24 mg per liter to well below the total phosphorus discharge limit of 0.04 mg/L. In the process the system is expected to generate approximately 400 pounds of algae biomaterial each day (73,000 pounds annually) which can be sold, resulting in a dependable revenue stream for the village.

Municipalities from around the country are lining up to get a look at the Roberts' facility. The partnership has placed the village at the forefront of the race to clean water. It has been a truly historic opportunity for this growing community 30 miles east of the Twin Cities.

On Sunday, Dec. 6, 2021, Roberts, Wis., marked the launch of the Advanced Biological Nutrient Recovery system, the first of its kind in the world. Pictured, from left, are Project Delivery Director Autumn Fisher; Tom Mulcahy; co-founder and Operations Manager Kevin McGraw; Chris Holmes; Public Works Director John Bond; Village President Willard Moeri; Village Trustees Rand Waughtal, Chuck Pizzi, Shawn Dakovich; CLEARAS CEO Greg Guard and Chief Business Development Officer Jordan Lind.  Tom Lindfors / RiverTown Multimedia
On Sunday, Dec. 6, 2021, Roberts, Wis., marked the launch of the Advanced Biological Nutrient Recovery system, the first of its kind in the world. Pictured, from left, are Project Delivery Director Autumn Fisher; Tom Mulcahy; co-founder and Operations Manager Kevin McGraw; Chris Holmes; Public Works Director John Bond; Village President Willard Moeri; Village Trustees Rand Waughtal, Chuck Pizzi, Shawn Dakovich; CLEARAS CEO Greg Guard and Chief Business Development Officer Jordan Lind. Tom Lindfors / RiverTown Multimedia

“I’ve been very pleased, very thankful that we’ve been able to work with a company of such integrity. I’ve been very happy with the people involved from CLEARAS, nothing but genuine people. Hopefully, their future in this process gets brighter and I hope our water gets cleaner, Village President Willard Moeri said.

“Today, we are inaugurating the most advanced biological nutrient recovery system anywhere in the world,” CLEARAS CEO Greg Guard said on Dec. 6.

“The village of Roberts is ground zero for the future of nutrient recovery which is a wave that is going throughout the entire United States. That is something you can be very, very proud of. We would not get to tell this story, our story, to the rest of the world without you. In fact, every company like ours needs people like you to take a chance on us and for that, we are eternally grateful.”

Flooding risk

As the village celebrated the completion of its new biological nutrient recovery system, a new report in 2020 projected an uncertain future for the village’s wastewater treatment plant due to rising water on Twin Lakes.

The plant could be inundated by 2026 if nothing is done to stem the inflow of water into the pair of seepage lakes southwest of Roberts, according to analysis by engineering firm SEH for the town of Warren. The finding upped the stakes for a long-term flooding problem that also threatens roadways and has displaced four Twin Lakes homeowners so far.

The Indigo Ponds neighborhood about two miles west of Twin Lakes also is starting to experience flooded trails, driveways and septic systems.

The multijurisdictional nature of the issue — involving multiple local governments and state agencies — has posed a challenge for Friends of the Twin Lakes, a nonprofit community association pushing to stop discharge from Roberts and bring down the water level on Twin Lakes. Members have been a staple at town and village board meetings calling on officials to take action.

The water level of Twin Lakes has increased 5.8 feet over the past 12 years, or about 6 inches per year, according to the SEH study. That’s roughly the amount of inflow from the Roberts wastewater treatment plant, members of Friends of the Twin Lakes have noted.

“Unfortunately, you’ll find that our report doesn’t have a silver bullet to your solution,” said Brad Woznak, the study’s lead engineer, at an October meeting of the Twin Lakes Joint Committee, made up of representatives from the village of Roberts and town of Warren.

The most feasible mitigation strategy is to pump water from Twin Lakes into the Kinnickinnic River system, Woznak said, but he cautioned that discharging into the prized trout stream would likely face public backlash and a “permitting nightmare.”

The new CLEARAS treatment system boosting the quality of water coming out of the Roberts treatment plant could make the pumping option more palatable, though additional study would be required.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources appears open to exploring a no-pumping alternative with the potential for acquiring at-risk properties and elevating critical infrastructure as the cheapest and least environmentally disruptive option, according to the SEH report, but members of Friends of the Twin Lakes have questioned the analysis behind that conclusion. The group also reached out to local lawmakers to join in the discussion.

The Twin Lakes Joint Committee is expected to meet again in early 2021.