$33 million water reclamation facility grand opening Friday

Published on Thu, Aug 5, 2010 by By Tara Nelson

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Starting this week the city of Blaine will be operating one of the cleanest sewer treatment plants in the state.

The $33 million project, which has been in the making for nearly 10 years, features membrane filtration technology, some of the most cutting edge technology in the realm of waste water treatment processes, and will create an effluent hundreds of times cleaner than that of most conventional plants.

The city has scheduled a grand opening at 11 a.m. Friday, August 6 at 272 Marine Drive.

How it works

The 23,000-square foot facility can treat as much as 3.1 million gallons per day and uses an advanced membrane filtration treatment system provided by GE/Zenon Environmental to produce class A reclaimed water. Blaine public works director Steve Banham said the effluent is rated Class A, the cleanest of all effluent classifications, and can be used safely for irrigation and industry.

The filtration process pulls waste water through a series of cartridges containing membranes with microscopic pores. Banham said these pores are many times smaller than the diameter of a human hair. While the reclaimed water that comes through the pores is not acceptable for drinking, it’s useable for nearly everything else.

“It’s acceptable for human contact, it’s acceptable for irrigation and it’s acceptable for industrial uses,” he said.

Much of that water will be piped and resold to large customers such as Semiahmoo Resort, who will use it to irrigate its golf course or used by the city for street cleaning and other industrial uses. It can also be seen used in the plant’s “Glass Waterfall” art installation by artist Shirley Erickson, of Bellingham. Banham said he estimates the resort uses about 300 gallons per minute on summer days to water its golf course, averaging half to one million gallons per day.

The water will be sold at about 80 percent of the cost of fresh water.

“We anticipate Semiahmoo constitutes a large irrigation demand that could conceivably be better served by reclaimed water,” he said. “Right now we pour a lot of drinking water into a duck pond so we can pull it back out and use it as irrigation for the golf course.”

Banham said the availability of reclaimed water could make Blaine a more attractive option for developers as some communities have used reclaimed water for other non-potable uses, such as flushing toilets. That, however, would require additional piping on the part of the city and future customers. The Washington State parks department has also expressed interest in using the water in the future, he said.

“Typically if reclaimed water is there, people will build because if they can buy it for 80 percent of the cost of potable water, it can save them some money,” he added.

Closed system

After most of the water is removed, the remaining material undergoes an aeration process where it is fed oxygen, and naturally-occurring bacteria begins to break down the sludge.

The thickened material is then transported by truck to a biosolids facility in Lynden that further processes the material, eventually using it as fertilzer for grass fields.

“It’s a completely closed system,” he said. “Material that has organic value is used in a land application and the water would typically go into a river or ocean but, in this case, we shorten it a little bit by a treatment process and it goes right into irrigation. There are some things that are filtered out that don’t have a biological benefit and those are things that shouldn’t be there to begin with like plastic and wood blocks, toys, keys. Those are screened and washed and bagged and shipped to landfills.”

Funding

Much of the funding for the project came from grants from the Department of Ecology’s Centennial Clean Water grant fund, which provides funding for projects that reduce non-point sources of water pollution, ($5 million) and the Reclaimed Water act ($1 million), as well as the U.S. Department of Agriculture rural development program ($6.5 million).

Banham said the city has also secured about $22 million in zero- or low-interest loans from the Public Works Trust Fund.

“We’ve been very successful in getting grants in area where grants aren’t as available as they used to be,” he said. “Anyone who is building a new plant today in Washington state is paying a lot to see it happen; as a result they will likely see similar rate increases as they did in Blaine.”

Environmental, artistic design

The facility uses approximately one acre of a previously undeveloped portion of Marine Park along Marine Drive and features two contemporary buildings designed with environmentally-friendly concepts in mind. 

With bright and open breezeways, large windows to maximize passive solar energy and earthy tones, the only visible reminder of the treatment processes is four small ventilation stacks reaching only a few feet over the top of the main building. The stacks are part of an odor elimination process, in which two large tanks called carbon scrubbers push air through a large charcoal filter.

Banham said it was designed to have most of the treatment systems located below ground to minimize view obstructions and minimize noise.

“What you see above ground is really the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “The treatment process won’t be visible from the road because it will be underground. It will look like a big concrete barrier.”

He added that because the facility is integrated into the nearby park, it is designed to maximize pedestrian access. For example, designers included a pedestrian bridge from the front of the facility to the beach.

The design team included Seattle wastewater engineering experts Brown and Caldwell, with local firms Zervas Group Architects and Wilson Engineering, and landscaping assistance by SVR.

Location, location, location

The need for the project became apparent during the early 2000s. The city had been planning to expand the sewer treatment facilty on Semiahmoo spit which had reached full capacity. However, Native American remains were discovered during excavation, which halted progress until the city and the Lummi Nation reached an agreement that precluded the expansion of the Semiahmoo treatment plant.

Banham said the city then created a nine-member advisory committee that represented citizen, environmental, business and tribal interests.

The committee looked at 14 different alternative locations throughout Blaine including the site of the new fire station on Odell Road and a different location on Marine Drive as well as an option that included shipping waste into Canada, to be treated by the Greater Vancouver Regional District.

Banham said that option was highly favored by the committee and members of the Blaine community but because of high growth rates in the Vancouver area, the district declined.

“They sent us a nice, very kind rejection letter and that was the end of that,” Banham said. “It was one of our more popular exports to Canada.”

The committee’s next choice was a site on Marine Drive owned by the Port of Bellingham and zoned as an industrial area, but Banham said the port ultimately wasn’t interested.

Finally, the committee selected a site on an unused portion of Marine Park on Marine Drive. 

“We thought it was an attractive location and we knew there would be an incentive to make sure the water quality was very good,” he said. “There was a huge concern expressed by the committee about untreated waste being pumped into the harbor and the impacts it could have on the shellfish in Drayton Harbor and the surrounding environment.” 

Because of the limited building area available and the proximity to the park, the committee also needed to select a design that would be compact and visually unobtrusive.

“The big circular tanks called ‘trickling filters’ you typically see  with sewer treatment basins would not fit in the footprint we had available,” Banham said.

“As we looked at those 14 different locations, we would have had to construct a pump station at Marine Drive and then pipe it to another location,” he said. “There wasn’t big real estate downtown, so we would have had to build more piping and a large pump station. By putting it there, we minimized the additional investment that was necessary for pipes and pumping. Everything currently flows to that location anyway, so it just made sense.”

“Also, putting it in a prominent location required that we be fairly odor free, and we were forced to make sure it wasn’t some ugly type of building otherwise it could start to detract from the value of the other, surrounding buildings. We thought we’ll have to pay a little more up-front but when you compare that with pipes and pumps and tearing up streets, we thought it was a good trade-off.

“Plus, the city already owned the property so we didn’t have to spend any money on property acquisition.”

Sewer rates

One of the more controversial aspects of the new facility is the impact it will have on waste water rates for Blaine residents. Rates for waste water jumped by about 11 percent in 2010, an approximate $8 increase for homeowners, bringing their monthly payment to $81.31.

Banham said this was inline with the increases projected in the city’s waste water rate schedule, but a recent decision by the Blaine City Council to eliminate connection fees forced the city to increase those rates even more. Added to that was a decrease in the amount of projected development.

“We’re not seeing as many housing starts as we once expected, and if that continues to be depressed, it could have a negative effect on the rates because we’re counting on growth to help pay for some of that,” he said.

And while proposed residential rates may seem high, Banham said it’s only a matter of time before other municipalities with aging facilities also increase their rates.

The city of Carnation, which recently constructed a new waste water treatment facility, for example, charges nearly $90 per month for residential users. And the city of Bellingham recently proposed to increase sewer rates as much as 46 percent in the next year.

“A lot of people are living off an increasingly limited capacity of plants that were built long ago, and they are enjoying low rates as a result,” he said. “But at some point those communities will require capital facilities improvements. Our current plant on the Semiahmoo spit is 28 years old and is already wearing out. It did not have the capacity to serve our growing community, and the site cannot be expanded because of archeological issues.”
He added that Blaine sewer rates, when combined with fees for water, average on par with other Whatcom County cities.

Subsequent increases through 2012 will depend on a number of factors including population growth and construction cost increases for the final phase of the treatment plant, according to a review by FCS Group, a utility rate and finance consulting firm in Redmond.

Of those factors, growth would have the most significant impact on rates as a higher growth rate will allow public works to divide the cost among a larger population base and reduce the cost to the average ratepayer.

“We know it’s been hard for some folks, and one of the things we’re committed to is providing a lower rate for people who are on fixed and lower incomes,” he said. “We’ve tried to make the increases small and in some cases non-existent. But it depends on what you value. If we hadn’t have built this plant, we wouldn’t be able to allow people to move into the community because we didn’t have the capacity to treat waste. Now we have the capacity, so bring ‘em on. Flushers wanted.”

Low-income assistance

Banham said the city still offers a low-income assistance program to help qualifying residents with their utility bills. Those include seniors or disabled individuals who live on a fixed income and are able to demonstrate hardship.

For more information, call 332-8311. Other local financial assistance programs for low-income residents include the Opportunity Council in Bellingham at 734-5121 and the Blaine Community Assistance program at 392-8484.

Photos by Tara Nelson