For years, the wastewater treatment plant in Delphos, Ohio, failed to meet federal regulations for effluent limits. The facility was old and could not handle the load from its 7,000 residents and large industry base. Slapped with an enforcement action and fine from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (OEPA), city officials were backed into a corner: either upgrade an antiquated system or build a new facility. Both options cost money, and with no federal funding available, residents would have to shoulder the responsibility alone.

For a community with low to moderate income levels, it was a heavy burden to bear. But considering the value of water and wastewater services to public health, the economy and the environment, there was no question about what had to be done. Nearly three years later, the city is ahead of schedule on the completion of a new $32 million wastewater treatment plant funded solely by a 100 percent increase in rates for residential and business users.

In many communities across the United States, failing or overburdened water and wastewater systems are forcing residents and city officials to reevaluate their commitment to funding capital improvement projects for water and wastewater. Without reliable federal funding, communities are rallying to invest in sustainable infrastructure.

A small town with big actions

When Kim Riddell became superintendent of wastewater for Delphos, she inherited the unenviable task of counteracting decades of non-compliance with the national pollutant discharge elimination system (NPDES). “The non-compliance was a gradual process,” Riddell says. “But when I took over in 2002, I don't think there was a month that we weren't in violation in some form.”

The main culprit appeared to be the city's combined sewer system, which allowed the release of non-filterable residue from local industries into the city's water system. While those industries, which were predominantly food manufacturers, were not contributing increased flows to the system, they were contributing a mixture of organic and suspended solids well in excess of seven times the population equivalent.

Unfortunately, inaccurate laboratory results did not alert the city to the problem. Discrepancies were discovered only after Riddell decided to focus specifically on the lab data. “Previously, the water was sampled the first four days of the quarter. But by the third month I was here, I was sampling every day for two months and saw huge fluctuations,” she says. The existing plant could handle 4,983 pounds of carbonaceous biochemical oxygen demand per day. Riddell says she was finding “26,000 pounds on any given day with an average of 9,000 to 10,000 pounds a day.”

The City Council decided to satisfy the conditions of OEPA's enforcement action. Needing an operating facility within 32 months, the city decided to build a $32 million membrane bioreactor advanced wastewater treatment facility. It was designed to handle double the flow of the existing plant, exceed the requirements of the NPDES permit and include a new influent pump station to address wet weather issues. Qualified in part by its income ratios, the city received low interest loans from OEPA's Division of Environmental and Financial Assistance. But with no federal grants, the entire amount will have to be repaid by increased user rates.

“We hired a lobbyist to go after federal funding, but were told that there isn't any money,” Riddell says. So in 2005, residential rates were increased by 15 percent of that year's current rate over four years. “When it's all said and done, it actually comes out to over a 100 percent increase because it grows every year,” she says. Industries will receive the same rate increase with an additional surcharge expected to generate more than $400,000 annually.

To gain the public's support of the project, the city launched an outreach program. Through public meetings and extensive coverage in the newspaper, residents accepted the rate increases. “I have attended several community group meetings to speak about the type of plant we are building, why we have chosen this treatment system, and why we are building it,” Riddell says.

Once mired in non-compliance and facing disciplinary action, water has become a priority for Delphos. As it nears the completion of its wastewater facility, the design of a new water treatment facility and 450-million-gallon reservoir is nearly finished. Sourced by nearby Little Auglaize River, the reservoir will replace well water as the city's main water supply.

Delphos is considering selling some of its new asset to help with the enormous cost of improving its water. “The water will be softened and less corrosive,” says water superintendent Tim Williams. “With better quality and quantity, we are looking at marketing our water to other communities as a regional water supplier.”

With the completion of both the wastewater and water projects by mid-2007, the community will have built approximately $50 million of new infrastructure — much of it funded by local residents. “It's going to be a real stretch for people to afford their water and sewer bills when this is all said and done,” Riddell says. But for that small community, it is a price they are willing to pay.

Charlestonians dig deep

Before 1970, wastewater treatment in Charleston, S.C., was non-existent. Untreated wastewater was discharged into Charleston Harbor, severely polluting the region's rivers and killing fish. That attracted media attention and prompted legislation requiring municipalities to treat wastewater before discharging it into waterways.

In 1963, state lawmakers passed “The Charleston Harbor pollution law,” which ordered municipalities to implement wastewater treatment by 1970. Charleston responded with the construction of the Plum Island treatment plant and a series of deep tunnels — the first of its kind — to intercept sewage discharge before it reached the harbor.

Some 30 years later, the Charleston Commissioners of Public Works (CPW) finds itself in the middle of the largest and most complex capital improvement project in the city's history: replacing the 35-year-old Peninsula tunnel system. Comprised of the Ashley Tunnel, the Cooper Tunnel, the Harbor Tunnel and the West Ashley Tunnel, the project is designed to meet the community's needs for the next 100 years.

Spanning across eight miles and located 130 feet below the city's surface, the tunnels are lined with steel ribs and wooden slats with an internal concrete and steel pipe that carries an average of 10 million gallons of wastewater per day to the treatment plant. Before reaching the tunnels, the wastewater flows through sewer lines and converges at locations around the city where vortices funnel it into a vertical drop pipe that feeds directly into the treatment plant.

Designed to allow air ventilation, the technology used in the vortices and drop pipes results in a chemical reaction that has proved damaging to the tunnels. Unfortunately, at the time of original construction, engineers did not foresee that the mixture of air and wastewater would produce sulfuric acid, a chemical that deteriorates both steel and concrete. If left unchecked, the damage would impair the city's wastewater flows.

“A blockage in the tunnel was the chief concern regarding deterioration of the tunnel system,” says CPW's Chief Executive Officer John Cook. “It could cause a wastewater backup and potentially result in sewage overflowing into the streets and people's homes. This was a serious public health and environmental threat and the primary motivation behind replacing the entire system.”

While making repairs to the system in 1988, inspections revealed more serious damage, particularly in the Harbor Tunnel where divers discovered collapsed tunnel lining and large holes in the pipe. Supported by the Chamber of Commerce, the Regional Development Authority and other agencies, CPW decided to replace the tunnel system, and in 1998, the City Council approved a $15 million bond issue to pay for it.

After completing the new Harbor Tunnel in 2002, CPW planned to replace the entire system in six phases over 12 years. However, when sections of collapsed tunnel and broken carrier pipe were discovered in the Ashley Tunnel, the project was condensed into four phases and prioritized by extent of deterioration.

Facing an estimated project cost of more than $100 million, including existing debts and money for homeland security improvements, CPW devised a funding plan of low-interest revenue bonds to be repaid over 30 years and $2.5 million in federal funding. However, more than $95 million will come from increased water and sewer rates and water impact fees, which are charged to newly built homes and businesses applying for water and sewer services.

Using the media and public meetings to educate the community, CPW instituted a total of three 5.5 percent rate increases in 2004 and 2006. An additional increase of 0.5 percent to 1 percent was later approved on water and sewer bills with a reduction of $500 to qualified customers for water impact fees.

However, Charleston residents could be facing additional increases. “While we have sought federal funding for major capital projects, we are not waiting to begin staying ahead of both growth-related projects and projects driven by new regulations,” Cook says. CPW hopes to convince residents to continue to invest in the city's future.

San Francisco's seismic security

Some consider San Francisco's Hetch Hetchy water system to be an engineering marvel that rivals the Golden Gate Bridge. Using gravity, the water system transports 85 percent of the area's supply from a reservoir of Sierra Nevada snowmelt in Yosemite National Park more than 160 miles into the Bay Area. It then connects with more than 1,200 miles of water mains — many approaching 100 years old — to deliver water to the area's 2.4 million residents.

The system, which collects the other 15 percent of water from runoff in the Alameda and Peninsula watersheds, also crosses five active earthquake faults. Based on studies conducted in 2002, the Bay Area Economic Forum found that an earthquake of 7.0 or greater on any one of those faults could cut off Sierra water supplies for up to 60 days and cost more than $29 billion in losses — resulting in a public health and economic disaster.

Although the system has never failed in more than 70 years, the aging system needed major seismic improvements. “Basic maintenance and repairs have been made in subsequent decades,” says Susan Leal, general manager of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC), the system's manager. “But upgrades necessary to keep it in top condition were deferred, in part from a rate freeze that was in effect for years.”

The city was facing a major capital improvement project, and its residents, who had been enjoying the lowest water rates in the Bay area, had to decide how much they valued the service. In November 2002, voters approved a $4.3 billion bond measure — the biggest in San Francisco's history — to rebuild the system. The tab will be paid through a series of rate increases for suburban and urban users that will more than triple their current monthly water bills. “Though rates will triple by 2015 to pay for the program, rates will remain at or below other California cities,” Leal says. Currently charged $1.71 per unit of water, residents will begin seeing increases of 15 percent for the next two years.

To gain support for increases and help alleviate public opposition, SFPUC launched a citywide education and outreach effort in spring 2005. “We visited more than 40 community organizations, educated the media, opinion and neighborhood leaders, held numerous public meetings and conducted two city-wide mailings about the program,” Leal says.

With the support of local leaders, including Mayor Gavin Newsom, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously adopted the increases with little opposition. In late November 2005, SFPUC's Governing Commission adopted the program, budget and schedule for the 10-year improvement project, which is currently under way.

Similar to Delphos, San Francisco also will simultaneously upgrade its wastewater system. Prompted by age and seismic concerns, the city is pursuing sustainable solutions for upgrading the system, including reducing chemical dependency during treatment, using green technology and environmentally friendly alternatives, full-cost pricing, and anticipating Bay area regulation changes.

“We will look at new alternative ways to improve our wastewater system,” Leal says. “But nothing has been decided on because we want the public to have a say in what types of upgrades the project should encompass.”

Gaining public acceptance for a billion dollar wastewater project and rate increases is challenging. “There is a general lack of awareness about wastewater issues in the community,” Leal says. “People are more in tune with the water issues because of the 2002 bond measure passed to [improve their water supply].”

In early 2006, the utility plans to start a wastewater educational program. “Once people start to think about how much they rely on the wastewater system, they will begin to see [its] importance.”

As water and wastewater systems continue to age and demand for water grows, communities will need to replace their infrastructure. Although faced with a looming crisis and economic challenges, local government leaders in Delphos, Charleston and San Francisco demonstrated that when residents are trusted to understand that water is an integral part of nearly everything they value, they will invest in it.

Lori Burkhammer is director of public information for the Alexandria, Va.-based Water Environment Federation.

The case for water investment

Community leaders looking for help to educate residents on the value of water will have a new resource available later this year. “Water is Life and Infrastructure Makes it Happen” is a public education program designed to inform and motivate the public, ratepayers and elected officials to invest in water and wastewater infrastructure. Developed by the Alexandria, Va.-based Water Environment Federation in alliance with several national partners, the program will use drinking water and wastewater utilities to distribute materials and create activities both locally and statewide. The program will target three focus areas: Water is Life, Water is Health and Water is Prosperity. Official launch of the program will be in spring 2006. For more information, visit www.waterislife.net.