By Polly Keary, Editor
If you live in Monroe, and your house is among the 89 percent of homes on the city’s sewer service, your sewer bill is going to take another steep hike next year.
It’s the third such hike in a row, but it’s not just money going down the drain.
It’s going to the Wastewater Treatment Plant at the end of Sams Street, where the earth is currently scraped bare and covered with bulldozer tracks around a new building filled with shiny new metal equipment.
It is the largest capital improvement project the city has ever done, and last week, plant operator John Lande explained why the sewer plant needs the expensive upgrade, and what the money will buy.
History of the plant
Monroe’s first wastewater treatment plant was built in the 1950s at the same site the current plant occupies.
“It was a primary treatment facility, basically a glorified septic tank,” said Lande, who came to work in Monroe in 1999.
Monroe built a second plant, expanding on the first one, in 1976, to comply with the Clean Water Act.
In 1995, the city made some improvements to the plant. The improvements were called Phase One, but there weren’t plans for Phase 2 at that point.
But Monroe was beginning its long growth spurt, and the Fryelands was just beginning to be developed. So in 2001, the city undertook Phase 2. It was problematic.
“We were disinfecting with chlorine, and we had to get chlorine out of the effluent, so we put in UV lights in 2000,” said Lande. “Unfortunately our UV systems weren’t compatible with our existing treatment system, so we had violations with that system that triggered secondary modifications for Phase 2.”
An environmental group sued the city in 2004 for violations of the Clean Water Act.
“We had a laundry list of problems,” said Lande. “We were exceeding permit limits for metals, fecal coliform bacteria; our technology wasn’t up to standard; we didn’t have adequate capacity.”
Monroe’s population exploded between 2000 and 2008, when the Comprehensive Plan for the sewer treatment plant was updated. Eventually the system grew to include 43 miles of pipe, carrying wastewater by gravity flow or pump to be cleaned before being discharged into the river.
“Plant staff recognized the need of making improvements because of capacity. Our systems were just not adequate to treat peak capacity and we still continued with disinfection issues with UV system,” said Lande. “Sewage pumps did not have the capacity to pump peak flows. In addition, we didn’t have screening pre-pump and our pumps would foul during high flow events and cause excessive maintenance, and it was a safety issue, and there were efficiency issues.”
That brought about Phase 3.
The new wastewater treatment plant improvements will solve the city’s persistent wastewater screening problems for the next 20 years, if all goes well.
It will also solve the problems with the UV disinfectant system and replace old equipment, said Lande.
“The biggest component is our new headworks facility,” he said. “The headworks is essentially the first part of the treatment process, where all the raw wastewater enters the treatment plant, including screening, pumping, grit removal, odor control and the supporting equipment. There’s a lot to it but that’s the nuts and bolts.”
Currently grit from streets gets into the system and wears out pumps and seals quickly. The new system will have more robust grit removal equipment.
Also, pumps that move water from the plant to the river will be larger, to allow the city to pump water into the river more easily when the river is high.
Pipes that weren’t big enough to handle peak flows–flows can increase 300 percent during the winter months–will be replaced.
Some of the upgrades have already taken place. The new UV lights are already disinfecting water to state standards. And the improvements to the hydraulic system means the system is running more efficiently and wasting a lot less electricity, said Lande, calling the upgrades a vast improvement.
The project isn’t cheap. It will cost a little less than the city forecasted, fortunately. The winning contractors bid came in at $8.6 million, lower than estimated. But design costs and other expenses will push the final cost over $10 million.
The city had some money set aside to apply to the upgrade, but utilities have to pay for themselves-they can’t use money from other funds– and the city had been reluctant to raise utility rates in recent years. That meant the city had to come up with a lot more than it had on hand.
So in 2010, the city council approved a 10-year bond to pay for it all, and approved the three annual rate hikes to meet the cost.
Phase 4, in which new clarifiers would be added among other planned improvements, was scheduled for 2014, but that won’t happen now, said Lande.
“They aren’t required at this time; we aren’t building homes anymore,” he said. “Phase 4 is within the 10-year window.”
Much farther into the future, the city plans Phase 5, which will include an anaerobic digestion system.
But for now, Lande is looking forward to taking over the operation of the newly upgraded plant in February.
So is the entire crew who works at the plant, said Lande, rocking back in his chair at the lunchroom table.
“This new plant can’t be done soon enough for the folks that eat lunch at this table,” he said.