Alderwood Water District officials say the $32,450 European trip was sound investment

  • Bill Sheets<br>For the Enterprise
  • Monday, March 3, 2008 6:48am

LYNNWOOD — A trip to Europe to study state-of-the-art sewer systems cost a local water and sewer district more than $32,000.

The Alderwood Water District sent 11 people, including three commissioners, six staff members and two consultants, on the trip last month.

District officials say the trip could save them money in the long run, providing the best information in purchasing a multimillion-dollar treatment system as part of the planned $70 million rebuilding of its Picnic Point plant. The old system, built around 1970, can’t handle growing demand, officials said.

“When you’re considering an expense of this magnitude, it’s important you gather all the facts,” Commissioner Donna Cross said.

Cross, Commission President Phillip Lay and Commissioner Larry Jones represented the board on the trip, which took place April 1-9. Staff included general manager Arden Blackledge, engineers, supervisors and an executive assistant.

The group visited the seacoast towns of Swanage and Lowestoft, England and Campbeltown, Scotland, to view their sewage treatment systems, then flew to Switzerland to see a new dryer system for biosolids. Expense records show the total for airfare, lodging, transportation and food for the trip at $32,450.82.

The commission approved the trip March 14, following a request by Blackledge that day. He asked for $3,000 per person, including airfare.

Blackledge said that many people needed to go because they have different expertise and points of view.

“I see certain things. Supervisors see certain things. Engineers see certain things,” he said.

Executive assistant Ginger Desy accompanied the group to keep track of transportation, hotels and expenses, Blackledge said.

“It was a rather compact trip,” he said. “We did get one day off.”

Commissioner Lay said he and Cross went on the trip because, unlike Jones, they are not part of the district’s group that has been studying the issue.

“We kind of went almost as outsiders, as an overview” to make sure they were receiving unbiased impressions, Lay said.

The money for the trip came from the district’s capital improvement fund, which has accrued about $90 million, Jones said.

The district staff plans to cut back on other travel and training expenses this year to help offset the cost of the European trip, Lay added.

The district is planning to have its new plant operating by 2008. It will be financed with a charge for new customers connecting to the system, with bonds and through the capital fund.

The district will eventually raise its rates to help pay off the bonds, Lay said, with the amount of increase to be determined.

While the current plant has a capacity of 3 million gallons per day, the new plant will have an expandable capacity of 4 million gallons a day, Blackledge said. Treated effluent is emptied into Puget Sound.

The system viewed in Europe, called a membrane bioreactor, treats wastewater so it’s 15 times cleaner than systems currently used, Blackledge said. The effluent is filtered through either a flat plate or a tube containing near-microscopic holes.

The system “actually blocks even some viruses,” Blackledge said. Each bioreactor system costs $5 million to $6 million.

The group went to Europe because membrane bioreactors in the United States are limited to retrofits or to systems that hadn’t been in place long, he said.

Membrane bioreactors have been used in Europe longer because they take up less space and because environmental standards in some areas there are much stricter than here, Lay said.

Three different companies sell membrane bioreactors, Blackledge said. Officials wanted to determine which is the most problem-free and would last the longest.

Seeing the technology firsthand, the group got information about systems that companies’ salespeople might not disclose or be aware of, Blackledge said.

The technology also will be used in King County’s planned Brightwater treatment plant in Maltby.

The Alderwood district voluntarily agreed with the state to a deadline of June by which it would have its plan for its new plant 30 percent completed. Part of that plan was to have selected its brand of membrane bioreactor, Blackledge said.

Though no official change in state standards for sewage is planned, officials anticipate that standards could get tougher during the estimated 30- to 50-year lifetime of the new plant. If the district didn’t incorporate the new technology, “probably within 10 or 15 years we’d be required to do some kind of retrofitting,” Blackledge said.

Building a plant with membrane bioreactors is comparable in price to building a secondary treatment plant, Blackledge said. Incorporating the new technology would save a significant amount of money over retrofitting, he said, though he didn’t have an exact figure.

“This is probably one of the most important decisions this district will make in decades,” Blackledge said.

Bill Sheets is a reporter for the Herald in Everett.

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