What’s the Big Idea? (2)

In the prior “Big Idea” post, I started with the idea that the traditional view of the water cycle is no longer accurate.  To the classic four phases – precipitation, flow, evaporation, and condensation – we need to add a fifth.  That’s mankind’s use and pollution of the 1% of the world’s water that’s available in fresh, liquid form.

The sheer scale of our water use is mind-boggling.  In the U.S. alone, our household use totals 32 billion gallons per day.  And that’s only about one-eighth of the total volume we use; the rest is used in thermoelectric power plants, manufacturing, irrigation, and mining. 

Point to remember: It all has to get cleaned up before we use it — and again after we use it.

More big numbers: Here in the U.S., we use 1.2 million miles of pipe to bring us clean water.  How far is that?  It’s as if we pumped our 32 billion gallons a day to the moon, then back, then back up to the moon and back to Earth again, and yet again up to the moon.  (You can also think of it as 26 miles of water pipe for every mile of Interstate highway we have.)

For wastewater, we in the U.S. use 750,000 miles of public sewer lines and 500,000 miles of additional lines connecting private property to public sewer lines.  Picture the same illustration, except that it’s sewage moving through the pipe.

The moon doesn’t want our sewage, any more than our rivers do.  So, we clean that water up in the 14,748 publicly-owned wastewater treatment facilities that process what comes through those pipes.  As my uncle used to say, “Put that in your pipe and smoke it.  Or maybe not.”

Next: More mind-boggling examples of water/wastewater infrastructure scale. Oh, and big money.

Source for data: American Society of Civil Engineers; Bipartisan Policy Center.

A New Hampshire Operator’s Visit to Vermont

Looking at my blank computer screen now, I am wondering what I can say that would be different.  How can I describe my wastewater operator exchange experience in Vermont?

Before June of 2017, I had no idea this program existed — until my plant superintendent shared an e-mail from New Hampshire Dept. of Environmental Services, asking if we were interested in sending an operator. I corresponded with N.H. contact Mike Carle, and he got my name submitted as an alternate with Sean Greig.

Later, my exchange confirmed, Chris Robinson — water quality superintendent of Shelburne, Vermont — contacted me with a final itinerary for my visit, Nov. 6, 7, and 8, 2018.  Chris was also gracious enough to take me around to the plants on the second day of my tour.  He explained the processes these plants use and the type of work they do to avoid having a negative impact on the environment.  

The author, third from front on left, with co-conspirators at the DoubleTree Hotel in Burlington, Vermont, during his exchange.

The treatment plant tours, on the first two days, were very interesting. I was led through plants by operators with experience ranging from two months to over 30 years. In every case, they explained each step of their process with me and shared insights about how they keep things running — in some cases, while dealing with storm flows and equipment failures.

During my tour, I also spoke with lab techs at each plant, asking what types of tests they run and where they grab samples when they do checks on equipment. There was even time to look through the microscope on the Shelburne tour and talk about the installation of DO and ORP monitoring probes.

I was also lucky enough to meet a local farmer and ride along on a land application of treated liquid fertilizer fresh from the plant.

Spreader tank taking on biosolids for land application at the Essex Junction plant.

I discovered that plants use disk filters to polish effluent before it passes through UV lights for disinfection; operators explained that the filters help extend the service life between cleanings on light racks.

All of the plants running digesters were using the methane gas for heating and power generation, and some, coupled with solar, were able to greatly cut power costs.                    

Some plants were not set up for sludge thickening and have to truck the material to other plants to process.  The plant where I work is in the same situation, so our town is considering upgrades to add machinery that will eliminate trucking costs.  In the past, our facility was rarely used by haulers, but recently surrounding towns have set limits on daily amounts being accepted. Along with rate changes, this results in an increase in truck traffic.

My Vermont tour allowed me to ask people about maintenance issues with the septage receiving units, as I noticed we all share the same brand of equipment. There are so many different thoughts on septage; some plants are able to handle the loads better, while others are limited in capacity.

I spent my final day at GMWEA’s trade show, where I was able to meet with sales reps and get information on all of the newest technology for treatment plants. The event  also included trainings for operators; I went to the morning Basic Math class and was pleasantly surprised at how much information they got across in an hour, with a very good instructor who understood how to keep it simple. Later, I sat in on the polymer course, and I was pleased to walk away with useful information that I can share with coworkers.

If I had to pick out one thing that stuck with me from the exchange program, it’s how well every one worked together between the different towns and operators.  You get the sense that everyone is working toward the same goal: protecting the environment and producing skilled professional operators.

As operators we need to take time to thank groups like Green Mountain Water, who are willing to invest in us.  Consider signing up and being a part of something that can make a difference!

Submitted by Ernie Smalley

Year of the Waynes

Congratulations to Wayne Elliott and Wayne Graham!!  Both were honored at the New England Water Environment Association (NEWEA) Awards Banquet in January, held at the Marriott Copley Place in Boston. The awards were presented in recognition of their dedication and contributions to the wastewater industry.

Left to right: Wayne Graham, Chris Robinson, and Wayne Elliott

Wayne Elliott, principal at Aldrich & Elliott,  Essex Junction, Vermont, received the 2018 Alfred E. Peloquin award.  This award is given annually to an individual who has shown a high level of interest and performance in wastewater operations and who has made a significant contribution to the wastewater field in such areas as improvements to the environment, cost effective plant operations, public relations, innovative process controls, industrial pre-treatment, training, Association contributions and related activities.

Wayne Graham, wastewater specialist at Vermont Rural Water Association, also based in Essex Junction, Vermont, received the 2018 Operator award.  This award is given annually to an individual who has shown a high interest and performance in wastewater operations and has made a significant contribution to the wastewater field.

If you happen to know someone who is deserving of either of these awards, please contact your NEWEA State Director, Chris Robinson, at crobinson@shelburnevt.org.  Nominations close on June 1st.

Contributed by Chris Robinson, GMWEA board member, NEWEA state representative, and water quality superintendent of the Town of Shelburne. Photos by Shannon Robinson.

To return to GMWEA’s website, CLICK HERE.

What’s the Big Idea? (1)

This is the first of a series of posts about big numbers, big systems, and big ideas.

Most water quality professionals don’t have time to worry much about the big picture.  People like facility operators, town managers, and DPW administrators are kept plenty busy treating their allotted gallons per day, fixing busted equipment, eliminating contaminants, completing reports, or searching municipal budgets to find money for maintenance.

But big ideas are crucial.  They provide inspiring visions — or warnings — that can move us to make good choices for the future.  No matter how well disciplined a ship’s crew, or how well maintained its mechanical systems, the first thing a ship needs when it leaves port is a destination.  

When it comes to how we manage water, we need to have the guidance of a larger vision.  We need to have an idea of where we ought to go.

First, we should remember that only about 1% of the world’s water is readily usable for us. That is, it exists as fresh (not salty), liquid (not frozen) water. Then factor in our ever-growing demand for it and our increasing pollution of it.  Obviously, we need a long-term vision for our management of this life-sustaining resource.

Next, we need to update our traditional vision of the “water cycle.”  In grade school, most of us learned a tidy four-part sequence: 1) water falls from the sky as rain or snow; 2) flows into rivers and lakes and oceans; 3) evaporates back into the sky; 4) condenses into clouds and falls again as precipitation.


Where are the homes, office towers, factories, power plants, and farm fields in this old-fashioned schematic?

But now we know there’s another phase in the cycle.  Humanity’s use and pollution of water requires that it go through extensive cleansing processes before it can return to the ground or surface waters, and before we can safely use it again. 

To understand why that’s so, we need a realistic sense of scale – how much water we use. 

Talk about “big!”  In the U.S., our  daily domestic use averages about 95 gallons per day, per person (variable by region).  When we flush, brush, shower, do the laundry, and water the lawn, we use about 32,000,000,000 gallons per day. Where does it all go?

32 billion gallons.  Per day.  Domestic use only. Just in the U.S.

Now consider that domestic use constitutes only about 13%, one-eighth, of the total amount of fresh water we use daily.  We use the other 87% in thermoelectric plants, irrigation, manufacturing, mining, and other functions. 

Not a drop of that water leaves our sinks, toilets, lawns, fields, pipes, or factories unpolluted.  That’s why 53% of America’s river and stream miles, 71% of our lake acres, 79% of our estuarian square miles, and 98% of Great Lakes shorelines are classified as “impaired” by at least one criterion in a 2018 U.S. EPA survey.

If you’re not daunted yet, be sure to read the next post on the bigness of our water infrastructure and the bigness of cost needed to make it work.  Then, on to some inspiring, solution-oriented Big Ideas offered by the U.S. Water Alliance!

Source for data and charts: U.S. EPA: https://www.epa.gov/watersense/how-we-use-water

To return to GMWEA’s website, go to www.gmwea.org.

GMWEA Wins Public Education Grant!

GMWEA recently won a $9,860 grant from the Lake Champlain Basin Program (LCBP) to help inform Vermont citizens about what we can do to reduce pollution in Lake Champlain. 

We can do a lot – provided we have the right information.

Most of us are familiar with the damaging effects of phosphate pollution, and with the e. coli contamination that sometimes closes beaches.  Unfortunately, our contribution of pollutants doesn’t end there.

Here’s a troubling, but illustrative fact: In a study conducted in 2016 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,  60% to 75% of the male smallmouth bass in the Mississquoi River were found to have both male and female genitals.  Their impaired reproductive function has potentially disastrous effects on the aquatic ecosystem.

Researchers say the deformity is probably due to endocrine-disrupting chemicals, particularly those mimicking estrogen, with the lead suspect being the herbicide atrazine – a common ingredient in consumer lawn and garden products.

Unfortunately, weed-killers are by no means the only ecologically-harmful chemicals a typical household contributes. Many can be found in common household products loosely grouped under the name PPCPs – pharmaceuticals and personal-care products.  The average Vermonter flushes, pours, or washes off these pollutants, and they enter the inflows of our wastewater treatment systems.  Some break down and become inert, but too many end up lingering – invisible, but harmful – in our natural waters.

If even our high-tech municipal systems can’t remove them, our only remedy is to  prevent them from entering the water in the first place.  That means we citizens need to learn better habits of product use and disposal.

The LCBP grant, funded by the U.S. EPA and administered through New England Interstate Water Pollution Control Council (NEIWPCC), will allow GMWEA to develop a series of four informational brochures, to be sent to every city and town in Vermont.  Delivered to ratepayers with water/sewer bills, the brochures – along with website/blog postings and other media coverage – will inform Vermont households about how to reduce use of ecosystem-damaging chemicals and how to dispose of them properly. 

PPCPs, such as antibiotics, antimicrobials, antidepressants, birth control pills, skin creams, insect repellent, hair dyes, and laundry products are only part of the problem.  Bacon grease and other kitchen fats clog wastewater pipes and pumps, especially when combined with “flushable” wipes, Q-tips, and tampons, reducing system efficiency and costing money in repairs.  Chemicals used in the garage and yard – degreasers, solvents, antifreeze, fertilizers, insecticides, weed-killers (such as atrazine) — also end up in storm drains or runoff and wreak havoc in rivers and lakes.  

During the next year, every city, town, household, and individual will receive tips on how to avoid polluting our shared waterways.  With this basic know-how, you can cut your input of the damaging chemicals.

Current plans call for the first brochures to be sent in May, and the initiative is expected to culminate in March, 2020.  GMWEA will contact municipal authorities to facilitate distribution in coming months, but if you’re a facility operator, town manager, DPW administrator, teacher, or ratepayer, you’re welcome to contact us sooner.  We’d love your help in getting the word out!

Thanks are due to our fiscal agent, Vermont League of Cities and Towns; to the Lake Champlain Basin Program; to New England Interstate Pollution Control Council; and to the U.S. EPA, original source of the funding.

Note: This post has been edited since its first publication to provide better information on the 2016 U.S. Fish and Wildlife study.

Click here to return to GMWEA’s website.

Wastewater Work, Then & Now

Wastewater treatment operators may be surprised to discover that their job has a long history — a history at once strange and perhaps all too familiar. 

According to an article by Will Hunt in the most recent issue of Archaeology magazine, a team led by archaeologist Roos van Oosten is now researching sanitation infrastructure and practices in the Dutch city of Leiden in the 16th century.  Their finds are changing the way historians view the Middle Ages.

Photo by BAAC Archeology en Bouwhistorie: This 2015 excavation in the center of Leiden is one of several that have exposed centuries-old waste infrastructure.

Van Oosten is digging not just in the dirt and biosolids, but in the red tape that proliferated in relation to sewage back then, just as it does now.  Her work brings her to excavations of both private latrines – so far, she has excavated 104 in Leiden – and early wastewater processing infrastructure. 

If you consider today’s regulations as onerous as the raw material of the industry, you’re probably not the first to feel that way.  Van Oosten’s visits to the city’s archives have found not just extensive regulatory stipulations – with titles such as “Rules and Orders on Privy-Cleaners and Nightworkers” and “Inspection of the Ordinances on the Subject of Privvies” – but actual permits and inspection results.

For one particular almshouse, Hunt notes, “she discovered 34 written permits, each of which describes the cleaning out of a private cesspit by a team of nightmen.  The 400-year-old paper trail reveals a fastidious process,” every step recorded in great detail.  On September 20, 1603, for example, a nightman named Baernt Roberechtsz removed 95 tubs of waste from the cesspit of a widow named Sara de Haen.  The tubs were then carried to a barge by “tub men,” legally bound not to spill a drop into the city canal.

Why “nightmen”? Because by law, septic workers had to work after 10 p.m. “so as not to offend the sensibilities of the citizenry.” They were also required to do so quietly, and could be prosecuted if they were loud, drunk, or sloppy.  Their pay was contingent upon certification that the job had been done properly and with due decorum.

Early sewage transport infrastructure in Leiden. 

By the mid-1600s, Leiden began transitioning to public systems that collected waste via pipes, as nowadays, and processed in bulk.  This was not an easy task – technology was primitive– and the process upset citizens, who claimed it turned the city into a “stink-hole.”  Some blamed a wave of illness and deaths in the mid-17th century on the odors from the new systems, but most likely the cause was cholera.

In some ways, modern wastewater operators are a lot better off.  In some ways – well, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Senate CSO Hearing Coverage — Just the Facts, Please!

Note: The following was written by GMWEA executive director Daniel Hecht to respond to a segment aired by ABC-affiliate TV station Local22.

Dear Local 22 Newsteam:

Thank you for covering the Vermont Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy hearing on CSOs (combined sewage overflows), at Echo Center, Weds. Sept. 19.  We are glad that this important issue has come into focus for the legislature and the general public.

However, I suggest that Courtney Kramer’s segment over-emphasized certain facts and failed to provide other, more important, details.

I am executive director of Green Mountain Water Environment Association (GMWEA), a nonprofit organization with 500 members – primarily operators of drinking water and wastewater facilities, municipal department of public works staff, and water scientists and engineers – which serves to offer water quality technical education, provide advisory to policymakers, and inform the public about water quality issues.

We agree with Conservation Law Foundation staff attorney Elena Mihaly – prominently featured in the segment — that a sign announcing a beach closure due to e. coli contamination, related to CSO events, is not in accord with anyone’s desired vision of Vermont.

However, the segment devoted too much time to this image and to Ms. Mihaly’s opinions, and too little to the roomful of environmental experts who could have provided important information to your viewers if their comments had been given more time on air.  In short, the segment missed an opportunity to foster a better-informed, more engaged public.

CSOs result from a complex convergence of rainfall volume, rate, and duration, and the infrastructure that attempts to mitigate the harmful effects of human pollution on waterways. Each region faces unique stormwater management challenges, dependent on local geology, waterways, paved surfaces, built environments, and infrastructure legacy – the type, age, and condition of wastewater/stormwater pipes and storage capacity.  There exists no single solution applicable to every location; nor are all  Vermont towns equally able to pay for improvements.

The complete elimination of all combined systems is certainly not a solution.  It is neither economically feasible nor, necessarily, in the best interests of water quality.  Stormwater itself is dirty, carrying animal feces, trash, organic garbage, gasoline, oil, and other harmful ingredients.  Except for the occasional CSOs, combined systems treat this water year-round.  Rutland’s systems, for example, treat 643 million gallons of stormwater yearly – equivalent to the entire volume of Lake Elmore – releasing water that is actually cleaner than the receiving streams!  Even when CSOs occur, the plants are still treating the overwhelming majority of the water, and domestic wastewater  constitutes a very small percentage of the outflow volumes.

Finally, the state and its municipalities are in fact working hard to reduce the incidence and impact of CSOs.  New warning regulations assure public notification within one hour of an overflow, and full reporting within twelve hours, assuring transparency.  The Vermont DEC is requiring the 14 cities and towns with combined systems to create long-term plans.  Cities like Burlington are implementing a range of solutions, such as satellite treatment stations and “green infrastructure” filtration/absorption sites.  New computer monitoring and control technology is coming on line, allowing more agility and specificity in operators’ responses to heavy rains or outflows.

The public should know that the water quality professional community fully recognizes the importance of our natural waters to our way of life, public health, the tourism economy, and the vitality of the environment.  As Karen Horn, director of public policy and advocacy for the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, said at the end of the hearing, the best approach will be for the legislature to direct prioritization of CSO-related projects through an integrated, multi-sector, multi-agency effort that fully studies the issue and provides all the facts for public consideration.  We hope you will help us pursue that approach through your reporting.

If you would like more information, I invite you to access the collective expertise of GMWEA’s extensive membership; my contact information is below.

Sincerely,

Daniel Hecht

CLF Permit Appeals – A Constructive Approach?

In a letter sent recently to VT Digger, representatives of eight municipalites agreed that the Conservation Law Foundation’s wastewater permit appeals currently in process are neither based on fact nor the best strategy for dealing with phosphorous pollution in Lake Champlain. The letter’s signers include town/city managers, planning and public works directors, water quality superintendents, and stormwater coordinators.

The authors take issue with CLF’s claim that the permits would allow for increases of actual discharges.  In fact, they say, the nine permits challenged “collectively lower the allowed phosphorous releases to the lake by 13,271 pounds per year, or 68 percent below current permit limits.”  Ironically, the nine targeted plants are those that have been most effective at reducung phosphorous releases.

While supporting ambitious efforts to clean up the lake, the authors point out that wastewater treatment plants contribute only 3 percent of the phosphorous flow from Vermont sources; further reductions would functionally penalize wastewater plants that are outperforming their permits!  Meanwhile, phosphorous from agriculture and urban/rural stormwater (much from roads and built environments) constitute 66 percent of Vermont’s infows.

Admittedly, these sources are vastly more difficult to limit.  The letter’s authors suggest that a collaborative approach —  one that acknowledges real priorities, and takes on the hard technological and regulatory challenges these flows constitute — would benefit Lake Champlain more than the permit appeals.

To read the VT Digger letter in full, go to: https://vtdigger.org/2018/08/15/local-officials-clf-suit-unfairly-targets-wastewater-treatment/ 

 

NEWWA Conference $100 Discount Still Available!

GMWEA members now have an exceptional opportunity to participate in one of our region’s most important water quality career-development opportunities.

It’s New England Water Works Association’s annual conference, held this year in Stowe, Vermont.  The four-day event starts on September 16, but you can register – and receive an immediate $100 discount – now!

Don’t wait!  The discounts will be awarded only to the first 20 GMWEA members to register.

New England Water Works Association (NEWWA) will present its annual conference September 16 through 19, at Stowe Mountain Lodge.  Thanks to NEWWA/GMWEA mission-sharing agreements, we are able to offer GMWEA members a $100 discount for registration, whether you register for a single day or the whole event!

In addition to many technical sessions and expert presentations, the conference offers unparalleled networking opportunities for water quality professionals, a region-wide drinking water taste test, recreational activities, and a special town hall panel on PFOAs and PFAs in New England.

Click here to view the entire agenda: http://newwa.org/Portals/6/Events/Annual%20Conference/2018%20Annual%20Conference/Conference%20Program%20for%20Web%202018-05-29.pdf

To take advantage of the $100 discount, current GMWEA members (only!) can register by directly contacting Katelyn Todesco at NEWWA – ktodesco@newwa.org.

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