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LLSWD evaluating funding for sewer plant upgrade
10/30/2013 10:28:19 AM

By Craig Howard
Splash Contributor 

The past year has been a time of transition for the Liberty Lake Sewer and Water District.

To begin with, the award-winning utility was faced with the task of replacing a pair of institutional pillars in longtime Commissioner Frank Boyle, who passed away last fall, and veteran General Manager Lee Mellish, who retired this spring.   

While the successors for Boyle and Mellish -  Commissioner Kottayam V. Natarajan Jr. and General Manager BiJay Adams - have continued the district's tradition of reliable leadership, another significant shift is on the horizon for the organization known throughout the region as a leader in environmental stewardship. 

As usual, LLSWD is addressing the latest challenge with a proactive approach.   

The Board of Commissioners meeting on Oct. 8 included a presentation by district engineer Dennis Fuller of Century West Engineering Corp. outlining the agenda for phase two of the district's reclaimed water plant upgrade. Along with other wastewater dischargers throughout the state, LLSWD will be required to implement plant improvements to meet standards for reduced phosphorous, ammonia and biochemical oxygen demand in the Spokane River.

The upgrades must be completed by 2018 to meet increasingly stringent requirements for wastewater discharge outlined in LLSWD's most recent operating permit. The new guidelines are being established to safeguard water quality in both the Spokane River and Lake Spokane in response to high concentrations of phosphorous, ammonia, oxygen-reliant pollutants and low river flows that wreak havoc on fish and the accompanying ecosystem. 

"Basically, this is a compliance schedule with certain milestones along the way," said Dan Grogg, chief operator at the LLSWD water reclamation facility. 

The sewer plant first went online in 1982 and underwent a major expansion in 2006. The first phase of upgrades seven years ago ran just under $12 million with the purpose of achieving higher levels of phosphorous removal. The district paid for the project through cash reserves and a loan from the state public works trust fund. 

Adams noted that LLSWD was ahead of the curve in 2006 when it came to meeting required standards.

"We could have waited; we just took the initiative to do it earlier," he said.

The latest restrictions will set the allowable level of phosphorous at 50 micrograms per liter, a level Grogg says "our engineers are confident we can meet."

The district received a $900,000 loan from the Washington State Water Pollution Control Revolving Fund to address design work on phase two of the plant upgrade. The blueprint includes a new filtration building with submerged membrane filtration, ultraviolet disinfection system modifications and other minor improvements. The design is expected to be complete by this time next year. 

"It's pretty minimal compared to what was done in 2006," Adams said.

The district is also monitoring the growth rate in the Liberty Lake area and its impact on reclaimed water treatment. Compared to Spokane County's rate of 1.26 percent per year, Liberty Lake is growing at a pace of 6.23 percent each year. On the commercial side, the rate in the LLSWD service area is 6 percent.

LLSWD Commissioner Tom Agnew said "there have been no real surprises" thus far in reports pertaining to the impending upgrade. 

"We're pretty optimistic we'll be able to treat our wastewater in a superior fashion," Agnew said. 

Cost for the latest plant upgrade has been established at $12.54 million. Adams said the district will first seek to cover the cost through a loan from the same revolving fund being accessed for the design work. The second option would be to tap into the public works trust fund utilized for phase one upgrades. Rate increases and issuing bonds have also been mentioned as revenue sources. 

"It will most likely be a mixed bag," Adams said.

Agnew said that while the public works trust fund has historically offered a more favorable interest rate than issuing bonds, a decline in that fund has meant many utilities throughout the state seeking support elsewhere. He expressed hope that the fund might be bolstered during the next legislative session. 

"We're seeing more communities not as eligible for the public works trust fund," Agnew said. "Everything is still on the table, though. I just know that the sooner we get this thing financed, the cheaper it's going to be. Interest rates are not going down."  

The district does not qualify for hardship grants to pay for the project based on its current low rates and income levels of the area it serves. Adams added that rate hikes could be part of the overall funding scenario at some point.

"Rates are probably going to increase because we'll  have to pay the loan back," he said. "We just don't know when and how much." 

As for the three-year gap between the deadline for plant improvements and implementation of the restrictions, Adams said regulators like the Department of Ecology understand the transition will take time.  

"It will be the best available technology out there to remove phosphorous," Adams said. "We're changing the dynamic of the plant. They're giving us until 2021 to ramp up."        

Ultimately, filtration improvements at the plant will result in the discharge of Class A reclaimed water that could be utilized for irrigation purposes. Adams said areas that could benefit from such irrigation include local golf courses, parks and agricultural land near the treatment plant as well as Saltese Flats to the west. The district has already installed 4,500 feet of reclaimed water line, commonly referred to as "purple pipe." 

Adams said the transport of water to a site like Saltese Flats would be more cost-effective than delivery to a closer property such as the Meadowwood Golf Course.  

"Saltese is twice as far away as Meadowwood, but you're not digging up roads," he said.     

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