February 18, 2014

Where does all the sewage go?

To paraphrase the recently deceased Pete Seeger, who was more interested in "flowers," where does all the sewage go? Here is the straight poop.

Hampton Roads Sanitation District (HRSD), a utility or political subdivision of the Commonwealth of Virginia that treats the region's sewage, has thirteen sewage treatment plants, nine in Hampton Roads and four on the Middle Peninsula. Three are in our immediate area (Williamsburg, York County and Newport News).

HRSD, created by public referendum in 1940 to eliminate sewage pollution in the tidal waters of the Chesapeake Bay, currently serves 17 cities and counties in southeast Virginia. This utility maintains 500 miles of pipes and 104 pumping stations to serve 1.6 million people over 3100 square miles. Some of those pipes are quite old.

Do we trust these pipes to convey 249 million gallons of "stuff" to be treated daily in 9 major treatment plants in greater Hampton Roads and 4 smaller ones on the Middle Peninsula? EPA folks, worried about past leaks, are requiring localities to inspect, repair or replace these pipes. James City County inspected their system over the past few years, and some of theirs are relatively new. 

But during heavy rains, sewage overflows frequently occur. 40 times in our area in 2012 and 14 in 2013. Stormwater, you see, mingles with our flushed stuff and heads to the treatment plants. That meant 23 million gallons of nasty stuff  entered our waterways in 2012 alone. That was the reason for those Department of Health warnings to not swim off some local beaches after heavy rainfalls. That is also the rationale behind HRSD's initiative for a regional approach to dealing with sewage overflows at a projected cost of $2.18 billion. That could be a saving of $1 billion over going the individual route.

To also meet EPA requirements, HRSD must also upgrade the wireless system used to monitor and operate the 500 miles of pipes within their system and install a "Smart Sewer Tower" telecommunications facility at the Williamsburg Treatment Plant. They are proposing a 138’ tall monopole.

But where does all that treated water go? Two distinct categories of water are the end result. Drinkable potable water, after treatment to levels determined safe for human consumption, could come out of your faucets and is often used to meet other demands, such as irrigation, carwashing, and heating and cooling factories.  Nonpotable water, after treatment by HRSD to meet regulatory standards (but not drinkable) is released back into our local waterways.  But, with a retrofit to a dual piping system, this reclaimed nonpotable water could be used to flush toilets, in fire hydrants, or irrigate lawns and gold courses. We have seen signs on many Florida and California golf courses that state "irrigated by reclaimed water."

Grass and plants do not need potable water to survive and in fact, certain plants such as Bermuda grass can survive on brackish water alone.  This is a terrific water conservation method that we will see more often as droughts continue in our country.