August 12, 2021
The Home of “Susie the Duck” runs on public power
By Mary Cardona
First published in the July 2021 issue of Live Lines by MEUW.
In the southwest corner of Columbia County, the aptly-named spring-fed Spring Creek flows north from the Lodi Marsh Wildlife Area through the City of Lodi and into Lake Wisconsin 12 miles to the north. While today it attracts anglers due to its status as a Class II trout stream with both rainbow and brown trout, in 1844 it began attracting settlers due to its waterpower potential. By the 1860s, Spring Creek hydropower was providing power to a sawmill and gristmill.
Judge I.H. Palmer is said to have founded Lodi on the banks of Spring Creek in 1846 in what was then the Pleasant Valley Precinct of the Wisconsin Territory. Judge Palmer was a probate judge and state legislator who had been living in Madison. He initially purchased 40 acres of land and then added more in early 1846 to establish the town. He named it after a city in the Lombardy region of northern Italy that lies on the banks of the Adda River. According to a Chicago and North Western Railway Company (C&NW) history published in 1908, Judge Palmer named his town Lodi not so much for its geographic similarities to Lodi, Italy, but in honor of Napoleon’s victory there against the Austrians in 1796.
After years of planning by locals and heavy investment, in 1871 the C&NW Railway began service to Lodi. A company called Baraboo Air Line Railroad built a connection from Madison to Baraboo in an agreement with C&NW. (Historians suppose the term “air line” was coined for these spurs because they were routed as the crow flies to their destination on generally flat terrain.) Now truly “on the map” and with a population of 725, Lodi was incorporated as a village in 1872. Lodi residents of this era could get supplies from a general store, accommodate visitors at a hotel, do trade with a blacksmith and shoemaker, bring their grain to a flour mill, educate their children at the schoolhouse, attend services at the Baptist Church and read all the latest in Lodi’s newspaper, The Lodi Flag. Today the old tracks have been turned into walkways.
After the turn of the century, with a population of about 1,000, the village had telephone service, a municipal waterworks, and by 1907, streetlights — one of the mills had been converted to an electric plant. Interestingly, even in 1911, residents complained that the municipally-owned power facility had high rates for electricity.
In 1941, the Village of Lodi (population 1,116) was incorporated as a city. The population today has grown to more than 3,000. Despite tripling in size, the City of Lodi has retained its small town character. Its close proximity to bigger cities with plentiful employment and recreational opportunities helped fuel its growth. The city is less than 30 miles from Madison and just over 30 miles from Wisconsin Dells in the opposite direction. Recently, Lodi built a new high school, a new middle school and replaced one of two elementary schools. Children come from several towns around the area to attend.
Spring Creek remains a central feature of Lodi’s identity. Because it is spring-fed, portions of the stream do not freeze over in winter, making it an ideal place for trout and waterfowl, particularly mallards, to overwinter. In 1948, a mallard made a nest in a decorative concrete basket in Veterans Memorial Park, and the fire chief’s granddaughter named the duck Susie. Over several years many more mallards used the basket to raise their young and in 1948, the city named Susie the Duck as its official mascot. “Susie the Duck Day” is celebrated every year with a parade, lots of food, family-friendly fun and a rubber-duck derby. For a fee, you can drop one of several thousand ducks into the stream and get an award if your duck is one of the first to finish. This year the 38th annual event is happening on Saturday, Aug. 14.
In September, the City of Lodi will host the 155th Lodi Agricultural Fair at its fairgrounds. Lodi is one of three cities in Wisconsin to have its own fair, and each year it attracts 450 exhibitors and 10,000 visitors over a four-day run. This year the fair begins on Sept. 2 and runs through the Labor Day weekend. There’s something for everyone at the Lodi Fair, music from polka to rock, a beer garden, an outdoor movie night, 4-H events, farm animals, a tractor pull, softball games, old school house tours, food (including a pork chop dinner), bingo, a rattle, an animal auction, a quilt turning exhibit, pie auction, demolition derby, a poultry show, a rabbit show, and last but not least, storytime with Susie the Duck in the Old School House.
Lodi Utilities will be helping ensure all of the electrical needs for the fair are being met, just as it does for other events that need a temporary increase in electrical service, like Susie the Duck Day and September’s Brew-B-Que, which features home brewers, a BBQ competition, and live music. All Lodi events attract tourists from across the state.
A section of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail runs through Lodi and other trails developed by the DNR are nearby, too. The Lodi Valley Chapter of Ice Age Park and Trail Foundation maintains nine miles of the trail from the Lodi Marsh to the Merrimac Ferry. The area attracts a lot of recreational bicyclists. Two new bike trails are being constructed along Highway 113 and Highway 30 and are expected to be complete by 2024.
In 2000, the Portage Street and Lodi-Prairie Street Historic Districts were placed on the State and National Register of Historic Places. Eleven historic homes and business buildings are in the register and there are many other historic buildings lining Main Street.
Lodi Utilities is a city department, overseen by a committee of the city council. It serves the entire city, except for one neighborhood and a small section of the Town of Lodi. In all, there are 36 miles of line in the city and another seven outside of it, in mostly hilly and rocky terrain. In all, Lodi Utilities serves just over 1,700 customers. Overwhelmingly its customers are residential, but 12 are classified as large customers and nearly 250 are commercial. The City of Lodi is completely surrounded by the Town of Lodi, which is, except for the small section noted above, served by Alliant Energy. The City signed a boundary agreement with Alliant in 2019 that put to rest any remaining boundary issues.
Lodi is a member of WPPI Energy, which provides all of its energy needs. ATC transmits power to Lodi’s two substations at 59,000 volts. Lodi completed the conversion of its distribution system from 2400 volts to 12,470 volts. The new system is configured as a looped system, so both substations would be able to serve the needs of the service area if one went down. Most service is overhead, but one of the projects Lodi Utilities is slowly working on is moving utilities underground in the older, historic sections of the city. Another major project is nearly complete. Lodi Utilities has put in a Honeywell AMI metering system that can alert customers with a text message about system outages. The system also enables customers to visually track their energy usage on the password-protected My Account page on the utility’s webpage.
Terry Weter, Director of Operations, has been with the City of Lodi for just 13 months. Originally from Missouri, he met his future wife in high school. Her parents were originally from Wisconsin so while the couple has moved around quite a bit, they have always gravitated back to Wisconsin to be near family. Just before he came to Lodi, Terry worked in Arizona for seven years as the Director of Public Works for the Town of Gila Bend. Prior to that, he held the same job title in Elkhorn for 19 years. Terry has also worked for the City of Juneau as well as cities in Missouri and Illinois.
Having work experience in other states gives Terry an interesting perspective on the industry. For example, in the other states Terry worked in, investor-owned utilities are regulated by a state utility commission, but public power utilities are not. “While it makes operating a utility a lot simpler, it also means that municipal utilities are not getting any oversight. It can be problematic for rate-payers if a utility is not well-managed,” said Terry. Cooperative purchasing in Arizona is also more widespread in the public sector for a variety of equipment and services purchases. In Wisconsin, public power utilities use joint action agencies mainly for wholesale power purchases and occasionally for capital purchases. Arizona law also makes it easier to purchase pretty much any equipment and services that a municipality needs. Due to a statewide vendor vetting system, municipalities simply choose from a pre-approved list of vendors for particular items instead of going through a request for proposal bidding process each time. Unlike Wisconsin and Arizona, the grant application process in Missouri is regulated at the state level to prevent any municipality from ap plying for a federal grant until all state sources of funding are exhausted.
To simplify the governing structure, three years ago the city dissolved the independent commission that had overseen the utility in favor of oversight by a committee of the city council. Lodi Utilities staff consists of an operations manag er; a part-time billing and accounts manager; three lineworkers, and a communications specialist who handles the website, the city’s Facebook page, print materials and alerts, which are pushed out to residents who sign up for the service online.
James Lincoln, Electric Utilities Foreman, has worked for Lodi Utilities for seven years. James spent the early years of his career in Madison as an IBEW-certified electrician and then took a position at St. Mary’s Hospital as the Electric and Maintenance Building Supervisor. But he found being behind a desk didn’t suit him. A Lodi native, he jumped at the chance to work in the city where he had always lived. Lodi sponsored him in the apprenticeship program at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College (NWTC). Because of his electrical expertise, he was able to test out of the first year of classes and completed his apprenticeship in 2017. James supervises one additional lineworker and an apprentice in his third year.
James sees the short response time as the biggest benefit public power customers get from a municipally-owned utility. “Lodi is a small town and we (utility employees) are well known. People feel comfortable calling us when they need us and they know we’ll respond quickly. Sometimes I even get calls at home before I hear about an outage through the office. Part of that is due to the work this utility has done in the community for years and years. We like doing school visits, which are very popular with the kids, particularly when we bring out the big trucks. We also participate in National Night Out and celebrate Public Power Week. Schoolchildren get coloring books and we make a point to interact with the public in a fun atmosphere.” Residents are also accustomed to seeing the Lodi Utilities bucket truck putting up Christmas decorations, replacing streetlights, and trimming trees.
Lodi Utilities is one of two cities in Wisconsin participating in the Focus on Energy pilot project, Save to Give Challenge. The project encourages residents to conserve energy by rewarding them not only with lower electric bills, but also by raising money for selected non-profits in their community. Over an eight week campaign, participants accrue points when they adopt conservation measures that result in energy savings. When enough residents accrue a set number of points, the local non-profits share a $25,000 reward from Focus on Energy. Lodi is raising money for Reach Out Lodi, a community store and center; the Lodi Parent-Teacher Organization, and the Prairie Valley Resale Store.
Lodi Utilities is part of MEUW’s Regional Safety Management Program Group that includes Prairie du Sac, Sauk City, and Waunakee. The group has formed strong ties with each other that are reflected in the ease with which they help each other out as needed on projects. Lodi has also enjoyed answering mutual aid calls. The utility most recently sent a team to Wisconsin Rapids and Florida.
Lodi Utilities is an active member of MEUW, participating in most of the events and seminars on offer. James just finished the MEUW Management Series and lineworker Carl Deans is going through the series now. “The program is re ally valuable,” said Terry. “In fact, I would like to see MEUW expand the number of hours in the program by holding classes more often than quarterly and offer refresher courses for those who have gone through the program.”
Terry sees the greatest challenge facing public power utilities as the financial ones that will be faced as the country continues to wean itself away from coal, which now generates just 20% of utility-scale electricity generation. “We are likely to see higher costs once coal goes offline unless more nuclear plants start being constructed,” he said. Terry also notes that green alternatives in Wisconsin are less plentiful. “In Arizona, they’ve put thousands of acres into solar, but Wisconsin does not have the same opportunity simply because we have a different climate here – although I’ve noticed that Wisconsin has invested much more in wind farms than Arizona has.”
Terry’s advice for other utilities? “Just do your best to keep your utility running and never stop learning.” Or as Susie the Duck might say, “Just keep paddling!”
Mary Cardona is a regular contributor to Live Lines