In the Swim

A Kentucky community turns its old treatment plant into an aquaculture facility in a partnership with a university and a private company.
In the Swim
Fish tanks under cover.

When the City of Winchester planned in 2004 to build a new 7.2 mgd activated sludge wastewater treatment plant on the site of the existing Strodes Creek plant, there was no money available to decommission and demolish the old facility.

But before the new plant went online in 2008, the Agriculture Department of Kentucky State University approached plant supervisor Killis Sinkhorn about using the old facility to continue its research on paddlefish, a high-value boneless fish for commercial production. "I was all for it," says Sinkhorn. "Using an old facility for a beneficial reuse is a win-win situation."

Today, paddlefish live in the old plant's 60-foot-diameter final clarifiers, which are fed by effluent from the new plant. Hybrid striped bass swim in the decommissioned sedimentation lagoons, and koi, catfish and largemouth bass in the old rotating biological contactor channels.

A positive for all

The university's proposal to raise fish at the old plant drew an enthusiastic reception from Sinkhorn. His next step was to seek the approval of general manager Mike Flynn and the five-member Winchester Municipal Utilities Commission.

"I saw it as a good idea, especially considering the direct impact it had on ratepayers by avoiding the cost of demolition," says Flynn. Once safety, permitting and site access issues were settled, the commission had no problem supporting the project.

Today, a private aquaculture wholesale company, Aquila International of nearby Versailles, manages the paddlefish population and related transportation issues, such as delivering fingerlings to the facility and sending fully grown fish to market. Aquila owner Tim Parrott visits daily to feed the paddlefish.

"I look at it as a symbiotic relationship," says Sinkhorn. The commission saved hundreds of thousands of dollars in demolition costs. The university was able to continue its research without costs to build ponds to maintain the fish, and Aquila International has a place to raise the fish for eventual marketing.

The boneless meat of the paddlefish is delectable, but caviar — paddlefish roe — is the prized product. Sinkhorn says that to ensure their desirability, the fish undergo frequent testing by university aquaculture researchers. Tissue samples confirm that the fish are safe to eat.

Researchers and graduate students feed the hybrid striped bass — a cross between a marine striped bass and a freshwater white bass — and other fish raised on the property. "When we have a daphnia bloom in our new 110-foot-diameter clarifiers in the spring, they feed it to the fingerlings and the fry," Sinkhorn says.

A place to learn

Aquila International pays the utility commission a nominal fee to cover electricity and other basic costs. Aquila is responsible for mowing the grass and maintaining a good appearance, but plant staff members help out on occasion. For example, operators recently pulled the gearbox on an aerator for repair because they had the required equipment on hand. "Our staff gives assistance when it's needed," says Sinkhorn.

The project also has educational benefits: Area students have long been exposed to agricultural programs like raising cattle and growing cash crops, but now they can learn firsthand about a different kind of farming. "We conduct tours of the plant to teach about our treatment process, and now we also try to develop an interest in aquaculture," Flynn says.

Sinkhorn observes, "I've been a big advocate and in favor of this program since the beginning. I think it is exciting to take an old and abandoned wastewater treatment plant and make use of it for a beneficial purpose."


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