STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald
To keep the city’s sewer system from going to waste, Durango is proposing to double its base monthly residential sewer rate to $15.64.
The fee increase would pay for $2 million worth of overdue maintenance, officials said. The alternative to modernizing the 27-year-old plant is replacing it with a brand new facility, which would cost more than $50 million.
“Once we’ve fixed everything, this basically will be a new plant, at a fraction of the cost (of replacing it),” Utilities Director Steve Salka said on a recent tour of the facility at the edge of Santa Rita Park that dates back to 1985.
Without preventive maintenance, sewer conditions will deteriorate and the likelihood of environmental disasters will increase, officials said. The city would rather pay for upkeep than pay the fines for sewage spills.
“If we leave our rates the way they are, we’ll never be able to do (preventive maintenance),” Salka said. “We’ll never keep up with the failure.”
Under the city’s proposed budget for 2013, the monthly sewer rate would increase from $7.82 to $15.64 a month, based on 2,000 gallons of water usage a month, which is still cheaper than surrounding communities’ rates, officials said. There would be proportional increases for commercial rates.
A public hearing on Durango’s proposed 2013 budget is scheduled for a City Council meeting starting at 6:30 p.m. Monday. A hearing just on the sewer rates is scheduled for Nov. 20.
Clear and present danger
Under Colorado regulations, sewer systems are supposed to be supported by dual power systems in case of a breakdown.
Durango’s dual system is the La Plata Electric Association and two portable generators to service its 17 lift stations in event of emergency. An additional lift station will soon come online to support Mercury’s new office complex.
In the event of citywide power failure, or even if one or more lift stations broke down, city workers would have to shuttle between lift stations to prevent or minimize spills and keep the system from getting overwhelmed.
The city’s sewer system receives on average about 2 million gallons of sewage a day, which also includes tankers bringing in sewage from septic tanks and the fats and grease from restaurants.
“If we lose power, we can’t control that sewage. It’s going to overflow into the river,” Salka said.
Because the sewage is mostly pulled along by gravity and the city can’t tell people to stop going to the bathroom, “There’s no magic valve to shut it off,” said John Sandhaus, the superintendent of the wastewater treatment plant.
“You flush a toilet, it’s coming to us,” Salka said.
The city has made contingency plans “to stay ahead of a potential problem,” Salka said.
The indoor swimming pool at the DoubleTree Hotel, for example, is the emergency receptacle for any overflow from a nearby lift station.
The city recently converted an obsolete pit at the treatment plant to collect any excess sewage. Because of its collection capacity, it would provide the city with six hours to respond to a crisis.
Salka also salvaged a generator from the city’s “boneyard” to maintain a decontamination system that treats water before it is dumped back into the river.
Salka has been cross-training a team of seven workers to respond to breakdowns in the system. They are tested once a week or more with surprise drills, such as an alert that a lift station has lost power.
Workers must drop what they’re doing and converge on the lift station with a portable generator and a pump and vacuum to suck up any spills or drain the lift station’s well.
During a recent drill, the city team got the portable generator to a lift station and restored power within 25 minutes, but they hustled.
“Thanks for the heart attack,” team superintendent Joe Coleman told Salka.
With the additional funding, Salka’s priority would be to replace and provide permanent backup power to the city’s aging lift stations. The system needs more pipes for the sake of redundancy.
Salka also wants to take advantage of new technology, such as a monitoring system to remotely control pumps and set off alarms in case of failure.
The blowers that control the temperature in the sludge pits are “1950s technology. They suck energy like there is no tomorrow,” he said. “There’s new technology where they operate on a fraction of the amount of electricity. We have to start phasing them out and get them replaced.”
Salka also wants to increase the plant’s capacity for recycling methane gas as a fuel source.
He would also like to cover open-air tanks to minimize the growth of algae and the stench of unpleasant odors. There was a stink recently when the enclosed digester had to be cleaned.
The digester is the last receptacle in the treatment process in which the sludge is converted into relatively safe bio-solid, which looks like “thin chocolate pudding,” Sandhaus said.
Because it does not meet regulatory requirements, the bio-solid cannot be sold commercially as fertilizer. So the city is spending $250,000 a year to haul it away daily in semi-tractor trailers to any farmer who will take it for free.
The city would like the capacity to dry the bio-solid into dirt, which could be sold commercially, given away to the general public as garden fertilizer, or taken to the landfill.
If sold on the market, the payback for the technology would be three years, Salka said.
The city would also like to improve working conditions.
Because of a leaky roof, Sandhaus works under a tarp in his office.
There is no air conditioning in the lab, which should be climate controlled. Nor are there any showers or locker room for the staff.
“It takes a special person to work (in sewers),” Salka said. “We need to treat them right.”