City leaders and owners of a Baraboo distillery at odds over water bills and waste discharge say they’re eager to reach a resolution rather than continue a water fight.
Driftless Glen Distillery’s owners say they’re being overcharged for water and sewer service. The city says when the distillery produces spirits, the waste it discharges into the treatment plant carries illegal levels of pollutants.
Driftless Glen owners Brian and Renee Bemis met Monday with the Common Council’s Public Safety Committee, accompanied by their attorney Buck Sweeney. The distillery has tussled with the city for several years over water and sewer issues.
“In all honesty, it hasn’t progressed to a point that’s satisfactory to us,” said City Engineer Tom Pinion.
The city is pushing the distillery to pre-treat water waste before sending it into the sewer system. During production periods, Driftless Glen’s discharge contains levels of phosphorous, suspended solids and other substances that violate city code.
“It has a noticeable effect on the operation of the plant,” Pinion said. “At the treatment plant, things get turned upside down when they’re in production.”
The distillery objects to the amount it pays for water coming in and going out. Based on its demand for water and the high concentration of pollutants it sends to the sewer, the distillery pays the city about $8,000 per month. Between paying to use the city system and hauling some waste offsite, Renee Bemis said water has become the business’ top expense and is driving up the price of spirits $4 a bottle.
“We’ve been trying to negotiate,” Renee Bemis said. “We can’t be competitive in the craft distillery world.”
Driftless Glen wants the council to grant the business a variance from its sewer ordinance as a unique user. The Bemises have offered to install a meter to measure water flow, and have hired a consultant to recommend wastewater management strategies.
“If there are ways to improve anything, we’re going to try to do it,” Sweeney said.
Council member Tom Kolb said pre-treatment is the best option, because high-concentration waste takes a toll on the city’s sewer equipment. “If you could catch the stuff before it got there, that would make the most sense,” he said.
Pinion said city staff would defer to the distillery’s consultant. In the meantime, Driftless Glen will haul high-concentration waste offsite. The parties will meet again in April.
“We don’t want to drag our feet on this thing,” said council member Phil Wedekind.
Driftless Glen originally planned to sell byproducts of spirits production to farmers as feed. But the intermittent nature of its production cycle made finding buyers difficult. The distillery then asked to discharge its waste into the sewer system. The Water Street attraction has used a centrifuge to break up its waste, to little effect.
Distillery representatives said the city’s approach to billing for water — assuming every gallon that comes in fresh eventually goes out as waste to the sewer plant — doesn’t fit Driftless Glen’s production process. Much of the water that comes in goes out in bottles, or evaporates in stills. “We only want to pay for the waste that’s going out, not the water that’s going out as whiskey,” Sweeney said.
Driftless Glen also wants to determine whether the high concentration of pollutants is coming from its distillery or its restaurant.
“We want to try to solve the problem here,” Sweeney said.
“We are all about trying to get a solution rather than be at odds,” Pinion agreed.