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Primer on a complex task

Small group hears about water, sewer workings

July 29, 2009
SOUTHBRIDGE — Almost anywhere, the water and sewer systems are taken for granted, but if they ever failed, everyone would know very quickly.

Preventing that problem is a complicated task involving high tech equipment, planning, dozens of people, numerous chemicals and millions of dollars a year. And a small group of people got a quick introduction to just how it works Wednesday evening as part of a meeting intended to be a discussion of how billing rates are set.

"I know people in town think the town should start running [the system] themselves, but I'm not kidding when I say they get paid less than our DPW people," said DPW Director Kenneth Kalinowski. "It requires an unbelievable amount of training and licenses to run these places. Towns can't underwrite it on their own."

He noted, for example, that the contractors — Veolia North America (sewer) and Whitewater (water) — can quickly transfer licensed people to Southbridge if someone leaves. Southbridge would have to advertise for the job, go through the lengthy hiring process, and probably find a temporary contractor to fill in during the delay, if they could.

Over the course of about 90 minutes, representatives of the two firms summarized in some detail what they do for the roughly $1 million a year each gets paid. In both departments, the bulk of the contract fee pays for labor, which Veolia's Don Benz described as "boots on the ground and guys running that big, scary truck," plus other tasks, including a lot of lab work.

The various numbers only tell part of the story — 45 miles of sewer lines, 83.5 miles of water, various tanks and pump stations, thousands of meters and valves, and the individual treatment plants themselves. The rest of it is often tied up in the language of science.

"If Isaac Newton could treat us all well, we'd get our water and it would all flow by gravity to the plant," Benz said. But it doesn't. Likewise, if things were easy, what's in those pipelines would never be a problem — but, of course, it can be. That's why the law requires extensive treatment, filtration and removal of material in a system Benz described as "an accelerated mirror of Mother Nature under controlled circumstances."

The sewer plant, on Dresser Hill Road, removes nitrogen, phosphorus, "biosolids" and various other things to meet state and federal regulations that are getting stricter over time, Benz and others noted. Some of those things have secondary uses, particularly the solids, which become compost available for town residents to use on their own gardens and for the town to sell elsewhere. Eventually, when the outflowing water passes the DEP/EPA standards, it gets piped to Millennium Power in Charlton to create energy.

Often, however, that seemingly simple process has hiccups, often caused by nature. A few days ago, for example, the heavy overnight rain sent nearly 9.5 million gallons through the plant — about three times what it's designed for, Plant Manager Paul Krasnecky said. He later added it wasn't the largest recent flow — last year, it hit 15 million gallons briefly.

Much more common are issues related to the aging infrastructure. Kalinowski noted the sewer system started in 1898 and some of the pipes still in use are that old. The water system is older — 1880 — but most of its piping was installed between 1930 and the 1950s.

In that time, pipes decay and leak, get clogged by rocks or, sometimes, even get invaded by tree roots. Councilor Steve Lazo said he removes roots often, and once pulled 75 feet from a pipe.

As technology changes, that can cause its own issues. Various participants predicted they'll have some maintenance issues with making the water plant filters cooperate as they add a third one, will need to spend more time testing (that number has already jumped more than 750 percent since 2000),and will need to figure out how much odor control they can afford at the sewer plant, among other things.

Regarding the odor issue, Kalinowski said the town's odor study contractor is finalizing its cost estimates. He plans to present the recommendations to the council and Board of Health soon, but noted they've already received the first odor control unit for the plant's receiving building. Although many people point at the composting site, he said that's not actually the main smell culprit — the headworks were the sewage comes in are.

"Odors are a funny thing, because everybody has different sensitivity," he said, adding that it also changes with the weather.

Regarding the clean side of the system — drinking water — Whitewater General Manager Steve Donovan said the town's five reservoirs can hold around 1 billion gallons combined, and the "safe yield" per day is 4.82 million gallons. An extra 4.3 million gallons are in the town's four above-ground tanks. He noted the firm recently got state approval to treat and sell up to 4.6 million daily, but currently draws only around 2 million. The water system serves about 16,842 people, he said.

Kalinowski said the town currently is only expanding either system under two circumstances. New subdivisions are required to tie in if they're within a certain distance of an existing line, while older homes now on septic systems only do if enough fail in a given neighborhood to warrant extending the line to it, he said.

Both departments presented graphs showing that Southbridge's rates are pretty comparable to similar services. On average, the annual water cost is $609, about the same as Marlborough (which has twice the population), while sewer costs are about $550, between Webster and the Westborough/Shrewsbury plants that serve a similar number of clients.

Town Manager Christopher Clark said the rates are set based on a formula determined by a 2004 rate structure study by Mark Abrahams "designed to offset our costs." There are two kinds — fixed, which includes the long-term debt on repairs, storage and other items; town administrative costs; and the contracts with Veolia and Whitewater themselves — and variable, including utilities (mainly electricity; the sewer plant is the town's largest electricity user) and consumption.

Rate changes themselves are based on the changes in the former, mostly state requirements for testing and other functions, debt payments, and contracted payment increases. In total, those came to a 3 percent hike this year, Clark said.

"We've definitely been sensitive to the double-digit increases that have been going on," but see 3 percent as being fiscally responsible, he said.

Gus Steeves can be reached at 508-909-4135 or by e-mail at gsteeves@stonebridgepress.com.

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