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Ellefson leaving his water world
Times photo: Brenda Steurer Jerry Ellefson, superintendent of Monroes wastewater treatment plant, is retiring after working for 41 years at the facility.
MONROE - Handling a city's wastewater probably is not anyone's idea of a glamorous job, but Superintendent Jerry (Gerald) Ellefson said he has enjoyed his 41 years at Monroe's wastewater treatment plant.

He talks more about the plant than he does about himself.

Ellefson and two of his long-time staff members will retire Dec. 27. Operator Randy Ringhand will retire after 37 years, and mechanic Ken Flitch will retire after 28 years. Ellefson hired both.

When Ellefson was hired by the city on Dec. 16, 1968, he was the only person at the plant.

"I did the operations, the labs, everything, and even mowed the grass," he laughed.

Ellefson soon hired a part-time laborer - to mow the grass.

Today, 10 people work at the plant, which has an annual operating and debt service budget of $2.4 million.

"There's a new challenge every day," Ellefson said about running the plant.

"Monroe is unique in a number of ways," he said. "It's not a bedroom community, where every day is the same."

Monroe may have fewer than 11,000 people, but its variety of wet industries (dairies, cheesemaking, whey processing and breweries) use or discharge tremendous amounts of water, Ellefson explained.

"While one person uses an average of 100 gallons a day, one major industry uses 80,000 to 150,000 gallons a day. Even if all 11,000 people left town, it would not be as noticeable as if one or two of our major industries closed," he said. "Even on Cheese Days, we don't see the impact as compared to any one of our three industries starting up or shutting down."

Ellefson said the biggest investments and changes during his 40 years at the plant came with new federal laws and Department of Natural Resources (DNR) regulations.

The federal Clean Water Act in 1972 required a second treatment of effluent; and in 1984, DNR required an advanced second treatment, because Monroe's wastewater output makes up 78 percent of Honey Creek's water flow. In 1999, DNR instituted a regulation to remove phosphates.

The biggest changes Ellefson himself has undergone at the plant, besides his hair getting a little thinner, is the amount of paperwork he and his staff have to do, he said.

"With the regulatory agencies and more awareness, all the environmental groups, more information on the Web sites that gets out to the public now, so many eyes are watching over you," he said. "The paperwork and documentation is phenomenal."

One rarely hears Ellefson use the word "water," instead he speaks of effluents, the outflow of used water.

Taking a school group on a tour of the plant one day, Ellefson asked if the students realized the number of people in the country who drink final effluent.

"All big cities drink final effluent," he said, as an answer.

Much of the use of treated effluents is due to DNR regulations requiring communities to replace as much water as they take out of streams and lakes, he explained. So treated effluent has a variety of new uses, such as for fish hatcheries, crop irrigation and recharging ground water, he added.

Ellefson is concerned about the waste of drinking water, but said the trend is subsiding as people are running out of water all over the country.

Monroe's original wastewater treatment plant was designed in the 1920s and 30s, when people used about 20 gallons of water per day. That was at a time when people didn't have automated washing machines, garbage grinders and dishwashers, Ellefson said.

"The national average today, which is the same in Monroe, is 100 gallons per person a day," he said.

"In the last few years, the most major change I've seen is people being so much better at using, and making wise use of, water," he said.

Changes come as small as installing smaller flush toilets in homes and as large as industries reusing water.

"Whey, left over from cheese making, used to be spread on fields," Ellefson said. "But now they use an ultra filtration process, which removes the protein and lactose. The water left over is used for first cleaning of equipment and floors. City water is used for final cleaning," he said.

Even Ellefson was surprised when he replaced his own washing machine at home with a new front-load model.

"It cut our water usage in half," he said.

When Ellefson leaves his office, he'll take with him a half dozen family pictures, two mounted deer heads, a mounted turkey tail, and seven or eight plaques representing his lifetime awards and memberships.

Ellefson and his team took seventh place in the worldwide Water Environment Federation division Central States Operators Challenge in 1994. He also received the Operations Award, given annually to an operator from each of the three member states, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota, in recognition of outstanding wastewater treatment plant operation in 1994.

He also is a lifetime member of the Wisconsin Wastewater Works Operators Association.

Ellefson was instrumental in starting the Public Safety Committee for the City of Monroe and the City Employees Recognition awards.

Ellefson lost two brothers last year, and almost lost a third.

After retiring, he's going to be making up for lost family time, he said, by traveling with his wife Ella, who retired after 25 years with the school district, and by gardening and fishing with his 6- and 7-year-old granddaughters.

Jerry and Ella plan to remain involved with the Boy Scouts' Honey Creek Clean-up project, which he spearheads each year, as well as the Scouts fundraising committee.