What is the number one problem in our sewage system?
“It’s the wipes!” says Jon D’Amour, a 26 year employee working for the town and our Wastewater Sewage Plant Chief Operator. Apparently there is no such thing as a “flushable” wipe, despite what it may say on the package. “The biggest culprit in clogging our system and causing headaches for homeowners are wipes.” In fact addressing the problem with wipes was one of the big costs in the sewer facility upgrades that took place in 2019-2020, a whopping $750,000 for that one item alone. “It’s a cost to taxpayers for sure, but can also directly affect a homeowner who has to deal with a clog in their houses” notes D’Amour.
In addition to the pre-screening system to remove wipes, the upgrade also included rehabbing and upgrading the primary and secondary digesters, including new pipes and pumps. The last upgrade prior to this was in the 1980s… well over three decades ago. New electrical systems and automated controls done at the same time dramatically increased efficiency. Another key component was the replacement of the rotating biological contractors, or RBCs. Dozens of these units operate 24/7 to use natural bacteria to remove waste from the water and are vital to the system.
By doing most of that work in-house the town saved hundreds of thousands of dollars. The work done by our crews was exceptional, impressing manufacturer representatives and state inspectors alike. The total cost of the project could have been upwards of $17 million, but it was kept to about 9 million through cost savings and by moving some parts of the project to be upgraded over time rather than all at once.
Looking ahead, a big challenge we face is the fact that our treatment facility was designed for a certain level of “biochemical oxygen demand” or BOD for short. That level is currently 100 mg per liter of influent going to the treatment facility, and 30 mg per liter for effluent going out of the facility. Meeting that level in the past has not been a problem, but in recent years we are started to see our levels coming close to that limit.
One likely reason is the increase in the number of businesses that produce high levels of BOD in their wastewater such as breweries or cheese manufacturing. The town is reaching out to businesses to arrange for testing to help us understand where the problems might be and to inform how we can best address them. It could mean asking some businesses to install systems to pre-treat problem waste water before it is released into the town system. If such systems were required, the town has low interest loans available to help businesses. If the town systems are not able to handle the extra BOD levels being put into the system, it could end up costing ratepayers to pay for fines. In order to understand the problem and find the best solutions the first step is getting the numbers together so we know how best to proceed.
What about the long term needs and planning for our treatment system? Part of the Town doing its due diligence is asking these sorts of questions and being as prepared as possible. The biggest need on the horizon is replacing our current sand filter system. This is an additional filtration step that is essential during the summer months when the water level in the Walloomsac River is low. The current system is aging, requires extensive maintenance, and is not up to the demands placed on it during peak usage. Replacing the sand filter with a new disk filter would allow for greater water flow, easier maintenance, and could be expanded as the needs of our community increases. The challenge is this is an expensive project… probably $1.2 million or more.
The other long term challenge is simply keeping up with costs. Due to inflation, basic chemical such as chlorine have increased from $1.33 a gallon to $2.33 a gallon, and there are increases like that across the board. Add to that higher energy costs and transportation costs, as well as servicing the payments on the Town loan for the major upgrade that was recently finished.
We also are awaiting a new permit from the state for the facility. A new permit could come with changes to our current limits which could create additional challenges and costs. The town expects to see the new permit sometime this year and we will plan accordingly in order to meet all requirements that it may have.
New water and sewer rates are being set by the Select Board on Monday and there will be an increase. We do our best to keep costs down by doing work ourselves, by finding efficiencies where we can, and by doing smaller projects as we go along. While the cost of water and sewer in our community still remains below the national average, we are keenly aware that every penny still counts. We are fortunate to have a team of dedicated people working every day to keep our environment clean and doing its best to keep costs low.
One simple way you can help? Make sure to never flush any wipes!