Sewage fix hard on Snohomish

  • Sat May 1st, 2010 11:47pm
  • News

By Andy Rathbun Herald Writer

SNOHOMISH — A sewer treatment plant can be a messy problem when a city isn’t flush with cash.

Right now, Snohomish’s plant spills too much ammonia, nitrogen and bacteria into the Snohomish River. Seven years ago, a federal court said changes were needed.

City officials now are sharpening the focus on a plan to meet environmental guidelines, but major questions remain.

For instance, state ecology officials aren’t completely sold on the city’s plan to use a new water treatment technology. City officials don’t know how they will pay for more than $40 million in changes. And some on the City Council wonder if treated water could bring in money by selling it for use in irrigation.

“We have some unknown variables here,” city manager Larry Bauman said.

Sewer treatment plants are a common headache for cities. Monroe, Lake Stevens and Arlington have all grappled with multimillion- dollar issues in recent years.

The problems in Snohomish began in 1999, four years after its plant opened. The sewage — a mix of flushed waste, rain, dishwater and more — goes into the Snohomish River after being treated. Nitrogen and ammonia levels were too high, though, threatening fish, the state Department of Ecology determined.

The Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, a Seattle environmental group, sued the city, leading a federal court in 2003 to say the problems had to be fixed.

Since then, the city has worked on its lift stations and sewer overflow system. The biggest problem is the plant itself, however.

In the past six years, it was hit with 115 violations for spilling chemicals and fecal coliform bacteria into the salmon-bearing Snohomish River. The river faces tight environmental controls that weren’t in place when the plant opened.

“They’ve actually been doing a decent job for that treatment system,” said Shawn McKone, a permit and facilities manager for the ecology department.

City officials want to get the plant into compliance and stay there. They even have a plan to do it.

First, they would drop “integrated media” into the sewage lagoons. The devices would concentrate bacteria in certain areas. The bacteria, which feed on sewage, would then clean the water, allowing the city to avoid future fines.

That phase could cost about $3.4 million. The city has enough money to cover the bill, but the Ecology Department isn’t completely sold on the plan.

No other treatment plants in the state use the bacteria-concentrating devices, so the city may have to invest in them, then prove they work, McKone said.

“We have to approach it with some pessimism or caution,” McKone said.

City officials are optimistic the devices will get the job done. They point to their use in similar treatment plants in Wisconsin and Michigan.

“We feel like there’s a very, very good chance that it will work great,” public works director Tim Heydon said.

The devices would solve problems at the plant in the short term. The city’s longer-term plan is a bit more vague.

The city could upgrade its plant for about $40 million. The investment could go to waste if environmental guidelines tighten again, though.

Instead, officials want to build a five-mile pipeline to Everett’s treatment plant. They are discussing the idea with Everett officials now.

The Everett plant already handles wastewater for Marysville. Snohomish officials say it’s better equipped to deal with future changes to environmental regulations.

Construction on the pipeline and buy-in costs may run $41 million, money the city doesn’t have. Grants will be needed. Low-interest loans will be sought. Utility rates could climb.

The massive scope of the project has some on the City Council looking for other options.

City Councilman Greg Guedel pushed the city staff to consider irrigation. He wants to know if the city could keep the plant’s water out of the river by selling it to farmers for use on crops, such as poplar trees.

Guedel said that could help the city bring in money, instead of simply spending it.

“I’m not wedded to an idea that’s impossible,” Guedel said, “but at this point it hasn’t been explored.”

City staff is a bit dubious. Environmental controls on irrigation are tight. Upgrades to the plant would be necessary. And finding customers for water may be tough in the Northwest.

At the request of the council, city staff will review the idea, and may discuss early costs with the council at its May 18 meeting.

Ultimately, irrigation may be just one more variable dropped into an equation that everyone agrees has an expensive solution.

“What we’re talking about is a situation that’s going to have tremendous impact on the Snohomish community for decades,” Guedel said.

Andy Rathbun: 425-339-3455, arathbun@heraldnet.com.