Finding the Funds for Big Upgrades in Small Towns

Operators in small communities often find themselves with many more needs than available funds can meet. Here is a perspective from an operator in that position.
Finding the Funds for Big Upgrades in Small Towns
James (Jay) Irwin, chief operator of the village of Sherman (New York) Wastewater Treatment Plant

It’s a common tale. A small community’s clean-water plant is aging. The operators know it’s time to modernize or upgrade. They know what needs to be done, and community decision-makers do, too, but it’s hard to find the money to do the work.

James (Jay) Irwin, chief operator of the village of Sherman (New York) Wastewater Treatment Plant, finds himself in that position. The community of 730 residents, about an hour west of Buffalo, needs to replace or significantly improve its 140,000 gpd (design) plant, commissioned in 1978 and never upgraded. Unfortunately, the estimated cost of $4.2 million is more than the plant’s roughly 300 customers could support through higher rates.

Irwin, with the full support of the mayor and four village trustees, is casting about for state or federal funding assistance, so far without success. Meanwhile, despite badly deteriorating plant infrastructure, he and Josh Courtney, assistant operator, consistently meet BOD limits (30 mg/L winter — 10 mg/L summer), and TSS limits (30 mg/L winter — 5 mg/L summer). They achieve more than 99 percent BOD and TSS removal.

Ironically, that excellent performance makes it more difficult for the plant to receive funding from the state’s Environmental Funding Corporation. Irwin described the village’s predicament and his approach to excellence in operation in an interview with Treatment Plant Operator.

TPO: What is your background in the clean-water profession?

Irwin: My family moved to Sherman when I was 13. I grew up and graduated from high school here. I went to community college for two years, got a criminal justice degree, and worked as a police officer for about four years. Then the chief operator here, Paul Fisher, was looking for his replacement. He hired me, and I’ve been here since. New York offers a two-week basic operations course, a one-week activated sludge course and a one-week laboratory course. I took them, passed the state’s 1A and 2A exams, and got my 2A operator license.

TPO: Can you describe the plant’s basic treatment process?

Irwin: The collections system flows by gravity to a wet well. A pump station then lifts the wastewater to the head of the plant. After a comminutor it enters the process tanks. We have two tanks but only run one of them. They’re circular tanks with an aeration zone, a contact stabilization zone, a digester, and a stilling well in the middle.

The plant originally had microscreen tertiary treatment, but that was used for only about two years. About five years ago I converted those tanks to provide additional settling before the flow goes to the chlorine contact tanks. From there the effluent goes into a post-aeration tank, where we have fine-bubble diffusers. We discharge to French Creek.

TPO: What issues are you having with the plant infrastructure?

Irwin: The plant is pushing 40 years old. On our second process tank, the steel is badly deteriorated. All the concrete is falling apart. We’ve repaired what we can, but you can’t really ever fix that without redoing the whole thing. Our thickener fell apart with the harsh winters we have in this area; now we just use it for holding supernatant. The concrete around the chlorine contact and post-aeration tanks has been repaired numerous times.

TPO: What about the condition of the process equipment?

Irwin: We have a bar screen, but it’s not effective. We clean it manually about once a week. The comminutor doesn’t do a very good job. We have major grease and solids problems. We’re always pulling something out of the tanks and getting plugged air lines. Our influent pumps are getting older. They don’t handle the solids very well, and they plug up quite often. The pumps are in a small steel room about 20 feet underground that is rusting pretty heavily. We’re down there once if not twice a month putting one out of service to clean and declog it.

TPO: What makes it difficult to accomplish the upgrades you know are necessary?

Irwin: Our budget doesn’t allow for any kind of heavy funding. In recent years we’ve had to borrow money out of the general fund for the things we need — the normal lab work and our regular bills. We raised our rates in the last budget year by 50 cents per 1,000 cubic feet, so we’re getting on top of things, but we definitely don’t have a reserve.

TPO: What sources of funding are you exploring?

Irwin: There is funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development program, and I’m working on applying for that. We could potentially get all the money we need, but it depends on how much money is available. There are loans, or grants if we can qualify, but the amount available is limited.

TPO: Have you explored any other avenues for funding?

Irwin: We could have received a loan through the New York State Environmental Facilities Corporation (EFC), but the interest rate was 2 percent, and we can’t afford to borrow the full amount at that rate. We would need to have grant money as part of the package, and we didn’t qualify for a grant.

TPO: Why didn’t your facility qualify for a grant?

Irwin: They have a point system, and we came in below the line. That was because of the high quality of our effluent. They said that because of our effluent and the quality of work we do, it doesn’t matter what our infrastructure looks like. They said they understand that’s a flaw in the system, but there’s nothing they can do about it. Essentially, we would have to fail our permit to qualify for higher grant funding.

TPO: What will happen if your infrastructure and equipment continue to deteriorate?

Irwin: Eventually it’s going to affect our effluent quality. We can only do so much with what we have. If our tanks fall apart, we won’t be able to run our process properly. Right now we can’t even put our second process tank in service while we repair the first tank. It’s been suggested that we put in a holding tank, but we don’t have enough property to do that. We’re landlocked by the creek and by a farm right next to us.

TPO: How do you produce such good effluent with so little in terms of resources?

Irwin: It’s experience. I’ll have 10 years in June. I’ve been chief operator for six years. I had a great mentor in Paul Fisher, my predecessor. He was a really good operator.

TPO: What are you doing day to day to keep the plant on an even keel?

Irwin: We keep very close track of our mixed liquor suspended solids and our sludge volume index. We watch them daily, and we have the process fine-tuned so that we know what we need to do and when to clean the tanks. We have an extended aeration process, and we have the ability to introduce influent to our tank at different positions, depending on our flow.

TPO: How do you respond to changes in flow?

Irwin: We don’t have combined sewers, but we get a lot of I&I, so we see high flows from heavy rains or from snowmelt in spring. We’re able to short-circuit the system to move those heavy flows through without affecting our process. We move our influent port into the contact stablilization zone, so the flow gets treated quickly. Because it’s highly diluted, we don’t need as much detention time to process it properly. Then we use the two former tertiary tanks to allow more time for solids to settle out. You could almost call them polishing tanks.

TPO: What does the future look like in terms of your permit? Will permit changes make an upgrade even more necessary?

Irwin: We may soon have to get down to a lower chlorine residual. That will be hard to do without dechlorination or going to UV. Our ammonia limit is going to change. We will have to meet a limit year-round instead of just in summer the way we do now. We’ll have trouble meeting the limit in winter because of the way the process works. We might have to consider chemical addition or adding another tank.

TPO: Are your community leaders on board with the need to invest in the facility?

Irwin: They are definitely in favor, but we’ve got to find the money to do it. I’ve had a couple of village board members in for a visit. I showed them what’s going on, and they fully understand the situation we’re in.

TPO: In your opinion, what should be done to help small plants like yours?

Irwin: I favor merging systems where possible. We have a couple of cases in our county where towns have gone together to form sewer districts. Our neighboring town has a lake with more than 600 properties and no sewer system. I proposed upgrading this plant and having their sewage pumped and treated here. Then we could share the costs and make it cheaper for everybody in the long run. I had an engineering report done to compare what it would cost for them to build their own system versus coming to us. They decided to go on their own.

TPO: What can be done to help small facilities where combining systems isn’t possible?

Irwin: The EFC lists who is receiving money and who has received the 0 percent hardship loans and grants. A lot of those places are big plants treating millions of gallons a day, while little plants like ours that are more in need aren’t getting anything. We go above and beyond to make sure we meet our permit. We do the same job every wastewater department is doing, only with less money. I think that should be taken into consideration under these funding point systems. We manage, but with what we have and where we’re heading, we’re not going to be able to manage forever.


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