Staff outlines wastewater plant’s faults

Audrey Caro

Sweet Home’s 70-year-old wastewater treatment plant, despite upgrades in 1974 and 1994, is outdated and continues to, on occasion, leave the city out of compliance with Department of Environmental Quality regulations.

That wasn’t news to the City Council Thursday, Aug. 31, but councilors got an earful of the plant’s deficiencies in a report from staff during a work session focusing on the city’s wastewater.

The city contracts with CH2M Hill to operate the city’s wastewater and water treatment plants.

In the world of wastewater treatment, anything older than 35 years has seen its useful life, said Greg Springman, public works director.

He, along with Staff Engineer Joe Graybill and Finance Director Pat Gray, presented information about the plant to the City Council at the work session.

In his overview of the situation, Springman said the city spent about $15 million between 2003 and 2012 to tackle the inflow and infiltration problems with the system.

I&I is storm water that leaks into the sewer system through deteriorating pipes or cross connections to storm drainage.

When the plant receives more water than it can handle, operators must bypass untreated wastewater which enters the South Santiam River.

This spring was one of the rainiest in years, said Springman, who took over at Public Works in June.

“We violated several times for suspended solids and E. coli,” he said.

The city was issued an enforcement letter in June.

City Manager Ray Towry said he does not yet know what the penalty will be, but the city will face a fine.

Springman said the city’s problems with treating wastewater start with the first step at the plant, the screening process.

The screening process is extremely important, he said.

Although packaging for items such as cleaning wipes and baby wipes carries symbols warning not to flush them, they still end up in the waste stream.

“(They) have caused a lot of havoc in our aeration basins and into our secondary clarifiers,” Springman said.

The original bar screens are about 2 inches apart. Screens that were installed during one of the updates are about 1½ inches apart.

Staff has to clear out the debris about 100 times a day, said Regional Business Manager Brian Helliwell of CH2M Hill.

“Now plants are taking out things as thin as dental floss,” Springman said.

While the timeline for completion of a new plant is subject to change, Graybill said the engineering phase will likely last through 2018 and part of 2019, with a plant completion date toward the end of 2020.

He said there may be a way to do the bar screening sooner.

“Putting that up in front is so important to the rest of the operations of the plant process that it would be extremely useful if that could happen,” Graybill said. “That’s one of the goals I would like to shoot for.”

In addressing the financial portion of the project, Gray said the city’s wastewater fund is $33,206 in the negative.

“We are now in the negative because the rates are not keeping up with the expenditures,” she said. “We increased the base but reduced the multiplier. The multiplier is what brings the money in because it is based on consumption and what is used.”

She said $2 million of the estimated $4,952,000 cost of the project will come from the state Lottery.

“We can eke out $1.5 million between our capital depreciation and our reserve fund that we’ve been saving money in for the wastewater treatment plant and for projects in I&I programs,” she said.

Gray said she’s looked at three options to come up with the remaining amount of almost $1.5 million.

The first option is a general obligation bond which she broke down in terms similar to a mortgage, with a 10-year term, a 20-year term, or a 30-year term.

She also presented information on revenue bonds and state loans and grants.

She said in the past, she, former Public Works Director Mike Adams and former City Manager Craig Martin have met at round tables with potential funding organizations, such as the USDA and EPA.

“It is kind of neat because they’re looking at you as an individual project,” Gray said.

Money may also be available through Energy Trust of Oregon incentives if the new plant meets certain guidelines, she said.

Mayor Greg Mahler suggested councilors and staff may want to revisit how aggressive they are on this project because of anticipated growth in the community.

“The plant is not healthy,” Springman said “It also is at capacity. If you want to talk about economic development, at what point until you’re ready to do this, at what point can you not invite someone that big (such as an industrial company or hotel).”

Towry said that wastewater is an enterprise fund, it’s a fee-based service, and the rates can be raised to expedite funding that can’t be found other places.

“If the community wants us to be able to grow, to provide local jobs and do the things that we want to be able to do so that our children go to college and come back, find jobs here, these are things that have to be done because to grow and bring in even small industry, we have to increase our capacity,” he said.