As cities grow and expand, the flow to wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs), also known as publicly owned treatment works (POTWs), increases. Many times, if preventative measures aren’t taken, the WWTPs can reach and exceed their capacity. What happens then?
When a treatment plant reaches or approaches 90% of it’s hydraulic or organic design capacity, Rule 327 IAC 4-1-3 states that IDEM will notify the operator that a Sewer Connection Ban may be necessary. The Town of Greentown, Indiana experienced these issues during the past decade. Town officials engaged with Wessler to make major improvements to their collection and waste treatment systems.
What Is a Sewer Connection Ban?When a Ban is in place, new sewer lines cannot be connected to the WWTP, halting all new development.
A Sewer Ban can be an immediate response by IDEM to the poor performance of a plant, and in the case of Greentown was followed by an Agreed Order. An Agreed Order is an out-of-court agreement with IDEM outlining performance requirements necessary to correct capacity and/or treatment issues and also establishes penalties for non-compliance. The goal of the Agreed Order is to set the framework for bringing the plant back into compliance and identifies penalties for failure to comply.
The Impacts of a Sewer Connection BanIn the case of Greentown, the impact of the Ban meant that all development essentially stopped in 1997 when the Ban took effect. Developers put the brakes on planned development of land and new properties while the Town struggled to identify the appropriate path for removing the Ban.
Restrictions like this have a wide range of economic, developmental, and financial impacts on a community.
Preventing Capacity Issues
There are ways to prevent capacity issues. These problems don’t happen overnight. Municipalities that take a proactive approach will reap the rewards over the long term and avoid massive projects. Here are some of the ways a town can avoid and potentially prevent costly Sewer Bans:
Develop trends. Communication between the WWTP and collection system staff and the Town Board is crucial. A best practice is for the WWTP superintendent to provide the Board an annualized trending sheet at each monthly meeting and inform the Board of changing trends. Projecting future flow 5 to 10 years out at different growth rates can provide a good timeline when additional capacity is needed. This data is key to understanding how the system is performing and handling growth in the town over time. Watch these trends and prepare.
Open dialogue with IDEM. IDEM is a great resource, not your enemy. If wastewater staff see concerns, they should talk openly about these items with their IDEM inspector.
Be proactive. Seek recommendations early. A typical response we often see is for a municipality to be reactive rather than proactive. Being proactive is important. These issues do not normally go away on their own and costs typically increase over time.
Understand the municipality’s vision. How does the town feel about growth? Does the town want to grow? If promoting growth is a priority, then utilities are a major part of that planning process.
Prioritization of projects is important. Greentown could have elected to increase only the size of their plant, but this would not have addressed their aging collection system. By addressing the collection system first and developing a long-term plan, the Town helped to preserve a valuable asset and also reduced the size of the improvements needed at the WWTP.
Best Practices for Getting Restrictions Lifted
When a town has reached capacity and finds itself under a Sewer Connection Ban, steps must be taken to resolve the problems.
Think long-term, don’t rush to judgement. There is certainly an understandable temptation to fix the issues as quickly as possible. However, a quick fix can be more costly in the end and lead to a waste of time and effort because the root cause of the problem is not addressed.
Listen to your engineers’ honest assessment. The solution might be a complete overhaul costing millions, or a simple pump replacement. It’s important to keep an open mind when evaluating the recommendations of the engineering firm. This is why we value an established, trusted, and open relationship between engineers and municipalities.
Think big picture. Similar to thinking long-term, all flows and future anticipated developments need to be considered. If growth has been restricted for years, there could be pending growth that may cause a sudden surge in flows that could jeopardize the removal from a Ban.
Be prepared for this to take a long time. Take time to complete studies, understand the cause, monitor performance and flows, and build a multi-step approach. Once Greentown committed to removing themselves from their Ban, it took 9 years for them to achieve their goal. These projects can take a very long time, but they will take even longer if not done right the first time.
Funding is a big consideration. Small towns have an especially hard time funding the major projects that may be needed for removal from a sewer ban. Be prepared for all funding mechanisms to take time (lead times for grants, SRF funding with their assessments and requirements). Your project team will assist with seeking and securing funding.