Tomah man’s career was down the drain

When the spring construction season rolls around Don Pierce will not worry about what unknown issues may lurk beneath the streets of Tomah.
For those asking who Don Pierce is, and there will be some, many  people in Tomah know him not by his given name, but as Bass.
And why will Pierce not concern himself about the subterranean bowels of Tomah's waste flowage system? Because after a few months shy of 31 years, Pierce will step aside as a city employee at the Tomah Wastewater and Treatment Facility.
Pierce started working for the city June 10, 1985. In 2007, he succeeded Jerry Kitelinger as WWTF supervisor. His final day on the job is Monday, Feb. 1.
When Pierce started, he joined Kitelinger, Ray Eckelberg, Mike Hohn and Dwight "Mose" Moseley at the treatment plant. Pierce is the last of that group on the job. There are now six employees that monitor the facility that came on line Nov. 10, 1999.
Before city employment, Pierce worked for Gerke Excavating. He ran excavation equipment and worked on city sewer projects for Gerke. When the city job came open, a friend encouraged him to apply.
Pierce knew the job paid less, ($7 an hour) but added, "I took the job for the benefits. I needed health insurance," said Pierce, who was married and the father of three young children at the time.
Pierce eases into retirement with wife Patti, numerous grandchildren and reassurance he made the right decision in 1985.
Managing wastewater is certainly not glamorous work. But Pierce is fully aware of its significance knowing the importance of providing safe drinking water for residents. You take in dirty water and return it clean.
He vividly recalls Tomah's 1990 flood which submerged the wastewater plant, then located on North Woodard street. Along with its location, the Lemonweir River was a stone's throw away, the facility was too small for a community with growing needs. That site now houses Tomah's Parks and Recreation department.
Construction on the present WWTF started the spring of 1997. The facility is capable of treating 2.2 million gallons per day and is designed to serve a minimum population of 11,380. An oxidation ditch is used for biological treatment and biological nutrient removal (bugs) control ammonia and phosphorous.
The treatment facility also produces biosolids. Employees inspect the construction of  new mains and replacement of existing mains. The system has nearly 55 miles of sewer mains and seven lift stations.
Technology and ongoing project improvements decreased the amount of groundwater (infiltration) over the course of Pierce's tenure. What once took up to 1.7 million gallons of water now takes a little more than one million gallons for waste treatment per year.
But put aside all the technical jargon, Pierce feels the key to the plant's present location is being out of a floodplain and its room for growth. The plant encompasses 12 acres inside its fence. But additional land owned by the city allows room for expansion to meet city needs well into the future, Pierce added.
What challenges await Pierce's successor?
"To decide what projects take priority," Pierce said. "EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) regulations made it a challenge. The EPA drives DNR (Department of Natural Resources) rules."
But Pierce is quick to add the present contingent of DNR staff he works with are fair. "You just have to be truthful with them," he said.
While phosphorous levels garner environmental priority, Pierce knows other pollutants in the future will need to be watched. Pierce applauds the willingness of WWTF employees to attend seminars to keep pace with technology. Computers ease the task of filing reports and plant operation.
"(His successor) will need to like paperwork," Pierce said. "I did not mind the paperwork."
Interviews for the new WWTF supervisor were taking place the day Pierce talked with a reporter. His replacement will job shadow Pierce for three weeks. Pierce hopes that individual works by a simple creed he followed.
"I gave it all I had while I was here," Pierce said. "I know I'm not irreplaceable."
Pierce's focus this spring will not be on setting priorities for sewer upgrades. But if you plan to visit the Pierce farmstead it might be safe to call ahead.
"I don't plan on sitting around," Pierce said.
He has around 30 head of beef cows and young stock to tend, along with cropping around 100 acres of hay and corn.

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