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Water & wastewater: Seward.

Water and wastewater are some of the most expensive utilities to provide and also the most vital to keeping a community healthy. The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy says municipal water and wastewater treatment systems "are among the most energy-intensive facilities owned and operated by local governments, accounting for about 35 percent of energy used by municipalities."

In Alaska, costs can be even higher than those national averages, especially in rural and remote communities where groundwater is brackish or soils unsuitable for building wastewater treatment facilities.

But what's happening with water and wastewater in Alaska's urban areas? Are water utilities much different in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau, and Mat-Su than Outside? What are the issues facing these utility providers? Since last year, Alaska Business Monthly readers have been learning about utilities across Alaska and finding out how each community is preparing for the future.

The city of Seward wastewater treatment plant at Lowell Point may have one of the nicest views in the country, but city officials say the plant is giving off some offensive odors.

City public works director W.C. Casey says the city is working on a $4 million fix that involves draining the two city sewage lagoons, removing sludge, and reworking its aeration system to get it working back at normal levels again.

Seward's Lowell Point plant can process up to 880,000 gallons a day, but generally the number is a bit lower: between 500,000 and 700,000 in the summer. That number is largely dependent on rainfall, Water and Sewer Foreman Nort Adelmann says. July was a relatively dry month, for example, and Adelmann says the city processed about 500,000 gallons a day. August showed more rainfall, so the plant processed around 700,000 gallons per day.

Seward's treatment facility is self-regulating and pretty basic. Waste comes from about nine hundred customers around the city and travels through piping to some of the three lift stations and one pump station scattered around town. All of the waste goes through Pump Station 3 where a macerator grinds everything into small pieces for easier processing.

After passing through the macerator, Adelmann says, the waste flows into the treatment facility and to the first of two lagoons. There, eight aerators typically pump air into the septage to allow bacteria to break it down.

Adelmann says the first lagoon holds about 30 million gallons. Treated waste flows from the first lagoon slowly into the second, where it receives further "finishing" treatment. Once treated to acceptable secondary-treatment levels, the water flows out into Resurrection Bay.

Casey says the city recently began preparing for maintenance on the septage lagoons and realized an issue with the aeration system that's causing a larger problem: sludge buildup.

Accumulated Waste at Two Facilities: A Big Fix

"Sludge has accumulated for twenty years at our Lowell Point Wastewater Treatment Plant. We know it's time for maintenance. In the process of preparing for that ... we discovered that there is a problem with our aeration system. Were not getting enough air in our pond to activate the biological process and that's part of why our sludge is building up," Casey says.

Because the aeration system isn't working properly, he says, the sludge is building up faster than it generally would. And the untreated--or undertreated--waste is behind complaints the city has received about the smell.

Last year, he says, city test results were in compliance, but dissolved oxygen levels were lower than usual. With closer monitoring, city workers have realized the aeration system may need repairs.

"We believe there is a compromise in the piping to the facility, that there isn't enough air going out to the water to keep a happy, active biological process," Casey says.

Inspecting and repairing the piping will require draining the twenty-two-foot deep septage lagoons.

"If were going to drain the pond to find out what our air problem is, it makes sense to remove the sludge as well, and inspect the liner--make sure air is moving. It's just good management practice," he says.

With two lagoons, Casey says, the city sewer clients shouldn't see any interruption in service.

But the city's second wastewater treatment plant, serving Spring Creek Correctional Center, is a different story, he says.

The Lowell Point facility was built in 1982; Spring Creek Correctional Center's facility in 1987. Spring Creek is significantly smaller, set up to treat the sixty thousand gallons of influent coming from the prison each day. Over the years, sludge has built up at that facility also, Casey says, and maintenance is in order. But draining the single collection pond means taking the facility offline temporarily.

Earlier this year, the city solicited bids to do the repair work. Bids were opened in August and the city was in the process of awarding the contract to Merrell Brothers, a nationwide biosolids company based in Indiana.

"They're premier people in regards to this project. They do sludge removal all over the country," Casey says.

Sludge removal used to be a relatively easy job, Casey says: haul the waste fifty miles out to sea to dump it, and that's it. But regulations have since changed, and now sludge removal is very closely monitored, he says.

Pooling Resources to Pay, Future Plans on Hold

The city is using a variety of sources of funding to pay for the work. The Alaska Legislature appropriated $1.3 million for the project, and Casey says the city water fund, a reserve fund, is loaning the city sewer fund $500,000. A legislative appropriation for capital projects at Spring Creek Correctional is expected to offset the work being done at the prison's wastewater system, he says, and the city is using a combination of low-interest loans from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and other sources to complete the monetary picture.

For the city of about three thousand people with a general fund budget of $10 million, a $4 million capital project is a sizable investment.

After years of static rates, city leaders in 2012 agreed to adjust rates for water, sewer, and electricity to automatically adjust for yearly changes to the Consumer Price Index, or CPI. This year, all enterprise funds are increasing by 2.6 percent except wastewater, which will increase by 5.2 percent in both 2014 and 2015. According to the city budget overview, the increases are aimed at addressing the repairs needed at Lowell Point Sewage Lagoon.

The wastewater enterprise fund is expected to bring in just over $1 million in fiscal year 2014, according to the city budget, and expenses--even with the rate increase--are expected to be about $111,000 more than revenues.

"While these rate increases do not achieve the goal of fully funding depreciation in any of the enterprise funds, they are essential to the city's ability to begin funding its most critical capital needs," states James Hunt, Seward City Manager, in the 2014-2015 city budget transmittal letter.

The unplanned project is placing a little stress on other water and wastewater projects, Casey says. The city is deferring other projects until both wastewater treatment plants are back in operation.

None of the deferred projects should compromise day-to-day operations at the wastewater treatment plant, he says, but if they are deferred long-term, it could put the city in a bad spot.

"We have other projects that need to be done before we have catastrophic failure," he says. But the problem of deferred maintenance is a national problem, he says, not just one the city of Seward is dealing with.

Casey says deferred maintenance list includes city plans to build a new water storage tank and make repairs to the other two bulk city water tanks. The lift and pump stations around the city are roughly thirty-five years old and need to be assessed and perhaps repaired or replaced, he says, and the city has miles of collection lines that are sixty years old or older and should be systematically replaced. Budgeting for repairs is difficult, he says.

"With a small community, you can't increase rates to [the point that] you chase people off," he says. "We depend on a lot of creativity and depend on the municipal loan and grant program a lot."

City Offers Clean Water, Minimally Treated

One of the benefits of living in Seward is the fresh city water. City water comes from five wells, each around one-quarter mile from the next, and Adelmann says the water is pure enough that the city only uses chlorinated gas to keep service lines disinfected.

Like the wastewater system, the water operation is pretty basic: a looped system with two zones providing pressurized water to its roughly nine hundred customers. The city has two water storage tanks, one that holds 220,000 gallons and a second that holds 400,000 gallons; together they store nearly a full day s consumption during peak summer usage.

Seward has two major industrial users: the Alaska Railroad dock, which supplies water to cruise ships, generally twice a week during the cruise season, and the Icicle Seafoods Seward plant, which cans and packages salmon for export.

Adelmann says most of the time the city has plenty of water for all of its customers: residents, businesses, tourists, and both industrial users. But occasionally water usage spikes and the reserve tanks start dropping. When that happens, he says, the city may have to ask the industrial users to cut back their water use.

"We haven't had a problem this season," Adelmann says.

Water usage in Seward, particularly in the summer, reflects how busy operations are at Icicle Seafoods, he says.

"The cannery is the big variable for us; they can move some water," he says. Icicle Seafoods Seward Plant Manager Charles McEldowney says the plant recently rerouted part of its water system to take advantage of clean used water that previously had been going down the drain.

The cannery uses a significant amount of water to cool cans of salmon that were in pressure cookers. The water had touched cans but not salmon, he says, so the rerouting project gave plant operators a chance to reuse the water either in plant boilers or to put it through the troughs that wash cannery waste, such as fish heads and guts, down a drain system.

McEldowney says it's difficult to say just how many gallons of water the plant is saving each month, as monthly usage rates vary widely based on the amount of fish coming into the plant.

"It's obvious the water in that tank wasn't paid for a second time," he says. "It's a start. When you start finding projects like that, maybe it opens your eyes to another and another. It builds a culture in a system."

Rindi White is a freelance journalist living in Palmer.
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Author:White, Rindi
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:Oct 1, 2014
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