Fayetteville Wastewater Upgrades Flowing Fast

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Many Americans don’t have to think much about where their water goes after it spirals down the drain.

Out of sink, out of mind.

But dealing with those millions of gallons of water each day requires miles of pipe, mountains of equipment and infrastructure, years of planning, budgeting and precise feats of engineering.

The $180.7 million wastewater system improvement project in Fayetteville is the biggest single municipal project ever undertaken in Northwest Arkansas, said Dan Coody, mayor of Fayetteville.

While the most noticeable part of the project is the new West Side treatment plant, its cost only represents about one-third of the entire budget.

The other two-thirds of the project budget has gone toward renovating the Noland treatment plant – which is on the east side of Fayetteville – installing new pipelines, upgrading older pipelines, building new lift stations and paying for engineers, architects, contractors, permits and easements, among other costs.

“It has been a humbling experience to be entrusted with that much money, and to see it through from beginning to end,” Coody said of the project.

Coody isn’t running for reelection in November. Therefore he won’t preside over the very end of the WSIP, which is scheduled to be finished in December 2009.

He will, however, see the completion of the West Side plant, which is scheduled to be operating by the end of May, with a June 12 ribbon cutting.

The final cost of the WSIP will be about $55 million more than the amount voters approved in a 2001 sales tax decision. Coody is quick to point out that the original budget – which was approved before he was elected – didn’t account for increased costs.

Though some voters inevitably felt frustrated by the higher price tag, most of them no doubt understood the economic realities of inflation.

Many of the necessary building materials for such a project – like concrete and steel – have gone up dramatically, to say nothing of fuel. Diesel was about $1.40 a gallon in 2000. By 2006, it had nearly doubled to $2.70 a gallon and has now passed the $4-a-gallon threshold.

In September 2006, voters approved a $42 million sales tax bond issue to cover the gap.

Since then, every dollar has been accounted for. Three city officials review each invoice to ensure that taxpayer money is being spent on what it is supposed to be.

West Side Story

The West Side treatment plant is an impressive sight. As well it should be, considering what has gone into its construction.

Builders put up 32,000 cubic yards of concrete, used 2,800 tons of rebar, 88,000 tons of stone and 1,000 tons of ductile iron pipe.

It has gone from pasture to state-of-the-art wastewater facility in a hurry. Contractors broke ground at the site in January 2006.

A little more than two years later, it bears little resemblance to cattle-grazing grassland. However, 26 acres of wetlands were restored on the north side of the site.

One of the biggest structures at the plant is a 7.6-million-gallon storage tank designed to handle excess water. It is 236 feet in diameter, and took a half-million board feet of lumber to construct, said Lane Crider, vice president of special projects for Fayetteville engineering firm McGoodwin Williams & Yates.

The water inside the tank is circulated so it doesn’t become septic.

The hydraulic capacity of the plant is about 32 million gallons per day, Crider said. That’s nearly 50 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Many of those involved in the building and operation of the plant refer to bugs. They’re not talking about mosquitoes or crickets, but rather the microbes used to clean the water.

Operating a plant like the West Side facility is a balancing act of using the right bacteria in the right place at the right time and in the correct amounts.

Microorganisms aren’t the only natural ingredients used at the plant.

Instead of using chlorine to clean the water before it goes out of the plant, the new facility uses high-powered UV lamps.

Chlorine is an oxidizer that kills the bacteria chemically, while UV rays cause the organisms’ DNA to break apart, thus rendering them inert.

Though chlorine is cheaper to use on the front end than expensive, high-energy UV lights, the latter option is considered safer, because there is no risk of the poisonous gas escaping into the atmosphere and the water won’t have to be de-chlorinated.

The West Side plant is designed to be a good neighbor. One part of that goal was to make the plant less visible by constructing berms along the areas where the plant butts up against the road.

Another major component of being a good neighbor is eliminating odors.

Therefore, water isn’t the only thing that has to be cleaned at the plant – air must be scrubbed and sanitized too. It is also another agent used to help process water at the plant.

Air from the processing areas of the plant is drawn into a ventilation system, and then forced through towers containing charcoal filters. The air that comes out should be completely odorless.

By directing the air from the plant’s solids sifters into a holding tank, the plant designers saved about $500,000.

The water in the tank must be aerated, so instead of using fresh air, the designers opted to get two cleanings for the price of one. As the air rises through the water, it is cleaned up before heading into the other air purifiers, thus eliminating the need for another filtering tower.

The Noland plant was also upgraded with odor controls.

Another way the plant will save money is by using a 2-megawatt generator during peak hours. In the summer months – as more people are running their air conditioners and straining the power grid – the price of electricity goes up.

During those peak hours, the plant will run off the generator. Some of the lift stations will also run off of generators during peak hours. Operators began this practice at the Noland plant in 2005, and by 2006 had netted a monthly savings of $16,000 over the previous year, said David Jurgens, water/wastewater director for the city.

The generators will also, of course, serve to keep the whole system running in the event of an ice storm, loss of electricity or other type of disaster.

Eventually, many of the operations at the West Side plant will be automated. Most of the systems have triggers to alert operators if anything is out of line or needs to be replaced, reset or realigned, Crider said.

Neighborly Negotiations

When WSIP officials speak of being a good neighbor, they are not only referring to the people who live near the treatment plants. They’re talking about the dozens of easements necessary to complete the project, and also the state of Oklahoma.

About 20 years ago, Oklahoma sued to stop the city of Fayetteville from discharging water into the Illinois River, claiming it had no right to do so, Jurgens said.

The court established the city’s right to discharge water into the Illinois, but there was a strict limit placed on the amount of effluent dischargeable into the river.

When the wheels came into motion for the WSIP in the mid-1990s, Fayetteville officials received letters from Oklahoma threatening to sue the city once again.

But by communicating with the neighboring state, and keeping its environmental officials in the loop with regard to the new system’s stringent standards, the city won over its previous critics.

Some Oklahoma residents have even sent the city small checks to show their appreciation for the wastewater improvements, Jurgens said.

Another element of being a good neighbor on the project has to do with coordinating easements with property owners.

More than 160 easements were needed to make the WSIP a reality. Nearly 31 miles of new or replacement pipes were installed to carry water from lift stations to the West Side plant and the Noland plant.

Installing the pipes requires incredible precision said Lynn Hyke, construction manager on the project.

Much of the piping for the WSIP functions by way of gravity. Water flows down over many miles until it comes to one of the lift stations, where it is pumped up – sometimes more than 35 feet – and sent on its way again.

On average, the pipes decline a mere one-tenth of an inch over every 100 feet, Hyke said.

Negotiating with property owners can be challenging, but for the most part, the process went smoothly for the WSIP, Hyke said.

Pipe Dreams

Completing a project of the WSIP’s scope is a once-in-a-career opportunity, said Peggy Bell, contract and grant accountant with the city.

“The biggest thing for me is that I got to see a $180 million project start, I’m going to get to see it end and I’m going to know that every taxpayer’s dollar, including my own, was spent for exactly what it was voted for,” she said.

“Not only was it a stewardship of money, it was stewardship of the environment,” she said.

Three city officials – Bell, Jurgens and WSIP administrator Lori Johnson – go over every construction invoice. That’s a four-inch thick three-ring binder full of paper each month. Bell has found and resolved discrepancies of only a few dollars.

She found one instance in which a contractor had mistakenly sent the city an invoice for $300 worth of ice. Upon closer inspection, Bell found that the ice had been shipped to a site in Georgia.

It was a minor error, compared to the $180 million price tag for the whole project, but such diligence on the part of city officials is necessary to keep a project from going over budget, one little slip at a time.

This is, after all, a major investment that is designed to last many decades.

Although some of the equipment in the treatment plants will have to be replaced every 25 years or so, the pipes are made to last between 150 to 200 years, Jurgens said.

He noted the importance of thinking about the distant future when he related an anecdote stemming from when the Mountain Inn downtown was being demolished.

Jurgens got a call from a city worker who was unable to locate a particular manhole along the 100-year-old sewer system. Jurgens pulled out a copy of the blueprint for the original system, measured the exact distance and told the worker how far to go.

Sure enough, buried under a couple feet of earth was the manhole cover.

“A lot of what we do is correct the sins of the past,” Jurgens said of his job.

That is one big reason why the WSIP is being built to such stringent standards.

“I’ve been up to here,” Jurgens said, gesturing to the effect that he has at times been chest-deep in the reality of wastewater treatment. “And you don’t want to be there.”