Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Written 1/30/2007

Psst! Wanna buy some sewage water?

It’s not fit to drink or touch, but it is cheap!

Oconee County plans to charge customers who use treated sewage water from its Rocky Branch waste treatment plant, rather than give the water away, officials said at the January 17 meeting called to discuss the County’s plans for water reservoirs.

The County will maintain separate meters for use of the treated sewage water and plans to recover some of the costs of pumping the water to customers through a usage fee.

Wayne Provost, the director of strategic and long-range planning for the County, made the announcement about fees for use of the sewage water in response to a question at the meeting. Utility Director Gary Dodd elaborated.

"There will be a minimal charge for the reuse water because it is being pumped, it is being piped, it is being metered to those homes or facilities that are using it, so there has to be a charge," Mr. Dodd said.

The County did not mention plans to charge for use of the sewage plant effluent at either the March 14, 2006, or December 12, 2006, public hearings on the proposed upgrade of the Rocky Branch Plant.

Developers are running separate water lines, one for drinking water and the other for treated sewage water, in some subdivisions, such as the mammoth Parkside with its nearly 900 home sites. The reuse water is to be used for fertilizing lawns.

The County ordinance, passed in March of 2005, stipulates that reuse water should NOT be used for the following: "drinking, food preparation, hand washing, automobile washing, or irrigation of fruits and vegetables."

EPD regulations specifically recommends against any use that brings the treated water into contact with the skin and prohibits the use of the water for consumption by humans or animals, sprinkling of edible crops, body contact recreation, or filling of swimming pools.

At the December 12 hearing, an EPD officer said the EPD recommended anyone who touches the reuse water wash his or her hands before touching anything else.

At the January 17 discussion of reservoirs, the County touted the scheme to distribute reuse quality water as a cost-saver. Rather than treat the water from the sewage plants to drinking level quality, which is technologically possible, the County will save money by treating it to a lesser standard.

By using the treated sewage water, rather than drinking water, for watering lawns, the customers will save both themselves and the County money.

It is an open question whether people living in the subdivisions will choose to use the treated sewage water rather than drinking water, even if it saves them some money. It is common for children and pets to play in sprinklers and for customers to water both their vegetable gardens and fruit trees when they water their lawns.

Privately, County officials have recognized that a reuse market for the water may not develop quickly. In an email message Mr. Dodd wrote to Jim Sunta of Precision Planning on December 20, 2005, he said "I agree with your assumption that the reuse customer base will be slow to develop."

If the reuse market doesn’t materialize, the effluent of Rocky Branch sewage plant will be dumped into Barber Creek, if the County is given a permit to do that by the state Environmental Protection Division. That permit is pending.

The County also has not openly discussed other costs associated with the plan to develop the reuse market. While some developers are being encouraged to build the dual distribution system, when the developers complete their subdivisions, they will turn over the infrastructure, including the two water distribution systems, to the County for future maintenance.

The cost of maintaining dual distribution and metering systems has not been discussed at the two public hearings.

The promotion of use of the treated sewage water for irrigation also is at odds with current EPD plans to encourage water users to return as much water as possible to the streams from which the water has been taken.

The Bear Creek Reservoir, from which Oconee County is currently drawing most of its water, draws that water from the Middle Oconee River. Barber Creek flows to McNutt Creek and then back to the Middle Oconee.

Petitions signed by Friends of Barber Creek asked the EPD to require the County to treat any water it returned to Barber Creek to drinking water quality and to restrict the release to periods of normal water flow. In addition, we asked the EPD to do independent monitoring.

Jordan Jones and Goulding, the consulting firm the County hired to develop a wastewater treatment plans for the County, actually recommended that the County phase out its two existing waste water treatment plants–on Calls Creek and on Rocky Branch Road–and build a new plant on the Middle Oconee.

The January 17 meeting was about water, but, County officials acknowledged, at least implicitly, the linkage between the waste water treatment and drinking water treatment.

The amount of water the County brings in for drinking water increases the amount of water the County will have to treat at its sewage plants.

Both waste water treatment and drinking water treatment are functions of the County’s Utility Department. The debt the County takes on for water treatment and sewage treatment will have to be retired by that department and will be the responsibility of the County overall.

Both treatment of water for drinking and treatment of sewage water for discharge is done by plants using the same basic membrane filtrate technology.

It is quite possible to treat sewage water to drinking level quality. It is being done at a sewage plant in operation in Gwinnett County. And it is done many places around the world, as Jimmy Parker, from Precision Planning, acknowledged at the January 17 meeting.

So why won’t we do that in Oconee County?

"We don’t mind drinking other people’s waste water," Mr. Parker said in response to my question on this topic. "We just don’t want to drink our own."

One of the two reservoirs proposed would be downstream from an Athens sewage treatment plant. The other would be downstream from Monroe’s sewage treatment plant.

In fact, if the County gets its way and is given permits to discharge treated sewage from the Rocky Branch Waste Treatment plant into both Barber Creek and the Apalachee River, both proposed reservoirs would be downstream from Oconee sewage treatment plants.

So we may not like drinking our own waste water, but that is exactly what the County is proposing. It just doesn’t want to talk much about it.