Tag Archives: wastewater treatment

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; much more is used in thermoelectric power plants, manufacturing, irrigation, and mining. 

Point to consider: 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.

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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

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.

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/ 

 

Flushed!

On November 20, WCAX-3’s “News at 5:30” gave viewers an uncomfortable glimpse of what happens when they use their sinks and toilets as trash disposals. Kudos to WCAX for its willingness to show images of “The gross truth about what’s lurking in the sewer.”

Reporter Jennifer Costa interviewed Matt Dow, director of Burlington’s Main, North, and East Wastewater plants. Dow spoke candidly about the difficulty – and cost – of coping with congealed fats in Burlington’s 50 miles of sewer lines and in its treatment facilities.

Dow said the problem is compounded by so-called “flushable” paper-fiber products such as hand wipes, baby wipes, and sanitary pads. Contrary to advertising, they don’t dissolve rapidly, if at all. When combined with the fats, oils, and greases (FOGs) in the system, they can congeal, cause blockages, and impede the process of wastewater treatment.

WCAX’s article is indicative of  growing public awareness about  the problem throughout the country. A quick Google search brings up 300,000 news items about “fatbergs” — a new vernacular term referring to the huge masses of FOGs that too often accumulate in  sewer systems — including over 59,000 videos. Most are public service videos produced by water quality nonprofits and municipal governments, intended to improve public knowledge of the infrastructure beneath their feet and to suggest ways citizens can reduce their contribution to water pollution, particularly FOGs and flushables. (Above: A FOG/”flushable” clog, photo courtesy of Burlington Public Works Dept.)

As public awareness grows, people are starting to take action. “Flushables” are adding such a maintenance burden to public systems – costing the public many millions of tax dollars – that citizens’ groups in New York, Washington D.C., and other cities have launched class action suits against “flushables” manufacturers.

Vermont municipalities can keep the PR momentum going by using their websites and newsletters to inform customers about the problem and to provide tips on solving it. Burlington Public Works Department, for example, provides an online guide to help consumers reduce their FOG output: https://www.burlingtonvt.gov/DPW/Grease-Management

It’s time to get the information out there. As Matt Dow summed it up, “People have to care.”

Thanks again to Matt Dow, Jennifer Costa, and WCAX-3! To see the whole feature, go to: http://www.wcax.com/content/news/Flushed-How-what-goes-down-can-really-mess-things-up-458906083.html

As always, GMWEA welcomes your contribution to this blog! If you have questions about or experience with fatbergs and flushables, please leave a comment here.

To return to GMWEA’s website, click here: www.gmwea