Proposed SPLOST Referendum to Fund Wastewater Treatment Solutions
Wednesday, September 25th, 2013
On November 5th, voters will be asked to approve a one-penny sales tax in the SPLOST VII referendum, which in the city of Valdosta will help fund the relocation of the Withlacoochee Wastewater Treatment Plant (WWTP). Over the past five years, the plant has struggled to stay in compliance with National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit limits during heavy rain events.
"The SPLOST funding is critical for our plans to relocate the plant; if passed, it will raise approximately $80 million in the city of Valdosta, of which $55 million will pay for the wastewater treatment projects," said Henry Hicks, director of Utilities for the city of Valdosta.
"SPLOST is really the best way to go as about half the money comes from non-residents – people visiting or driving through the city. Otherwise we would have to consider other funding options, such as surcharges, property taxes or rate increases."
Moderate flooding of the Little and Withlacoochee Rivers in August caused a peak flow of more than 15 million gallons per day at the WWTP, which has a capacity to treat peak flows up to 12 million gallons per day. As a result, partially treated solids in excess of the NPDES permit limits were discharged. In February of this year, flooding from the Withlacoochee River, which is about a half-mile from the plant, caused the plant to shutdown. Although the WWTP is now located in the floodplain, it was not when it was constructed 30 years ago. The floodplain was redrawn after flooding in 2009.
"The current problem isn't the result of poor planning or bad decisions… From everything I know about the situation, our City has done and is doing everything they should to "fix it,"" said Myrna Ballard, president of the Valdosta-Lowndes Chamber of Commerce in an email to ValdostaCEO.
According to Ballard, Valdosta has one of the lowest millage rates, which is the property tax rate per $1,000, among comparable cities in Georgia, evidence of the city's good financial management. The millage rate for Valdosta is 4.106, Tifton 9.759, Albany 9.990 and Savannah 12.500.
A fix five years in the making
According to Hicks, the WWTP first flooded in April 2009, nearly five years ago. The flood was declared a federal disaster in 2009, enabling the city to file a claim with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
"FEMA hired an engineer and brought in a specialist specifically to write our claim. The claim was found to be feasible, fundable and cost-effective yet was denied by FEMA and the appeal of that denial was not denied until August of 2012, which was almost three and a half years after the flood event," Hicks said.
During the three years that the FEMA claim was being developed, the city was prohibited from making major repairs to the WWTP due to its location in a floodplain and the claim itself. However, the city continued to develop plans during that period for both short- and long-term fixes for the plant.
"We've always had a plan, even while we were waiting on FEMA. In 2009, we acquired acreage for the new plant location. We also began design of a new force main system. We've replaced and upgraded lift stations, implemented a manhole rebuild project and conducted TV line inspections," Hicks said.
The new plant, which is expected to cost approximately $20 million and be completed by November 2015, will have a peak flow capacity of 22 million gallons per day, nearly twice the capacity of the current plant. It will also be designed to be expandable. The new force main system will pump sewage to the existing WWTP rather than relying strictly on gravity. The system includes new pump stations and six miles of 30" and 42" mains and will handle more than 50 percent of the sewer flow from the Meadowbrook sewer line. It is expected to be completed by November 2014 and cost $32 million.
In addition, $2.5 million dollars in shorter-term solutions are currently underway at the WWTP and are expected to be completed within the next eight months. The goal is to avoid any further NPDES violations until the new WWTP relocation is complete.
Beyond improving its wastewater treatment capabilities, the city of Valdosta also met with neighborhoods and businesses to address system issues such as grease build-ups and infiltrations into the system from lateral lines.
"We plan on smoke testing the entire sewer system over the next five years using funds from the SPLOST referendum. That will help identify lateral infiltrations," Hicks said.
At the bottom of the basin
Approximately 1,500 square miles drain into the Little and Withlacoochee Rivers, almost all of them upstream from Valdosta, according to Hicks.
"The rivers join just north of the plant. Valdosta is at the bottom of the basin; 99 percent of the water is coming from upstream," Hicks said
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) has undertaken a flood risk management study at the request of the city of Valdosta that is expected to be complete in November of this year. It is the first step toward identifying the causes of flooding problems in the area so that effective short- and long-term solutions can be developed.
"The bottom line is you never want to have a sewer spill, ever. But you can't control Mother Nature," Hicks said. “We are committed to doing everything in our control to respond quickly during these events, until the plant improvements and relocation is complete.
More information on the WWTP and city of Valdosta is available at www.valdostacity.com.