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Town funds $50,000 wastewater study

Plans for an alternative sanitation system for the town are now more than just conceptual as the board of the Pagosa Springs Sanitation and General Improvement District (PSSGID) heard those plans last Thursday, first during a scheduled work session and later during the board’s mid-month meeting.

At the end of the day, the board approved the allocation of $50,000 to conduct a feasibility study and fund preliminary engineering for a project.

Initially, the town had sought to build a new wastewater treatment plant at a cost of over $7.4 million, at the insistence of state and federal regulators after those officials had determined (in 2006) that the town’s current system for wastewater treatment was obsolete and inadequate.

Earlier this year, the PSSGID received notice from the USDA that it had been awarded funds for the construction of a wastewater treatment facility. That funding package included $3,145,000 in loans (at 2-percent interest) and $787,000 in grants. Along with other funds secured two years ago (a $2 million loan from the Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority and a $1.25 million grant from the Department of Local Affairs), the Town of Pagosa Springs has just enough funding to construct the plant.

Presenting to the board, outside the work session and in a more public setting, former board member and Parelli CEO Mark Weiler said, “Some people would say that we have spent a large amount of money on a plant that hasn’t been built — and that statement would be accurate. But what I’m about to present is going to save everyone a tremendous amount of money.”

Saying that the overall cost of the project estimate (at $4.7 million) had 30 percent built into the figure on contingencies, Weiler added, “On every item, if it was asked if it would cost a dollar or two, we chose two.”

Earlier, during the work session, Weiler told the board that, with most contingencies subtracted from the estimate, he believed final costs would come in somewhere between 10 and 20 percent less than projected.

It was during that earlier work session where Weiler presented a refined version of a proposal first presented by representatives from the Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District (PAWSD) at the PSSGID’s Nov. 8 board meeting. That new alternative (option “2A”) would split construction costs and responsibilities between the two entities, with PAWSD assuming ownership of the infrastructure and would entail an inclusion of PSSGID customers as PAWSD rate payers.

However, while pursuing that project, the town would not abandon plans to pursue the construction of its own wastewater treatment plant. Instead, the town would continue to proceed with necessary paperwork for the project in case a feasibility study proved the town could not acquire access to a PAWSD wastewater treatment plant. However, should that feasibility project show that Option 2A was workable, the town would most likely proceed with the option and either eschew or newly leverage available funding sources as it abandoned plans to construct its own plant.

The town has a September 2012 deadline for either accepting or rejecting USDA funding for a new treatment plant. According to Thursday’s proposal, data from a feasibility study would be received by the town as early as Feb. 1, 2012.

Essentially, Option 2A involves installing about seven miles of new pipe from the southside of Pagosa Springs to feed sewage to PAWSD’s Vista Wastewater Treatment Plant. That infrastructure project would also require the installation of two lift stations in order to pump sewage from the town basin to the east uphill to the PAWSD plant to the west. The PAWSD plant currently runs at less than 25 percent capacity, and the inclusion of town wastewater would only boost the plant’s capacity to just over 50 percent. Furthermore, that plant was engineered to be scalable and, as Weiler reported, could ultimately handle enough wastewater from a population nine times larger than what currently resides within town and district boundaries.

“From a utilization of asset perspective,” Weiler said, “this makes sense,” referring to the redundancy of two wastewater treatment plants in the area. Weiler added that the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) had expressed support for the elimination of one plant.

The CDPHE was the agency that had originally put the town on notice that it would need to build a new wastewater treatment facility.

Indeed, from an environmental perspective, the CDPHE would seem to be thrilled by the prospect of the Option 2A proposal.

There are several factors that CDPHE might see as an environmental benefit of using the PAWSD plant for treating almost all of the area’s waste water. First, one plant decreases the potential for a toxic spill by 50 percent. Likewise, effluent from the PAWSD plant is discharged into Stollsteimer Creek (where water is used primarily for agricultural irrigation) as opposed to its being dumped into the San Juan River from a new town plant, about 2.7 miles upstream from the PAWSD water intake source. As far as aggregate waste, the PAWSD plant also has an ancillary function that separates biomass from wastewater, bakes it and then turns the bio-solids into fertilizer (bio-solid waste from the town is currently disposed of in the county’s landfill). Also, PAWSD project manager Greg Mayo reported that, if possible, the district could potentially power lift stations with solar cells that would not only decrease energy costs (and the system’s carbon footprint), but could make the project eligible for federal energy grants, further offsetting the cost of the project.

Although the concept of “nano-hydro options” was discussed at the work session (turbines installed in sewer pipes that, with water pushed through downflows to turn the turbines, would generate power), no one was clear if the “nano-hydro options” would be workable in the proposed system.

Finally, the land where the current town facility resides (and where a new plant would be built) was referred to by Weiler as “the crown jewel in all of this.”

Pointing to the possible expansion of Yamaguchi Park and the improvement of air quality in that area following the rehabilitation of the town’s sewage treatment lagoons, as well as the other previously stated possible environmental benefits, Weiler said, “We are going to focus on the green part of the business and not the brown part.”

Ultimately, it was the cost — substantially less than the price tag on building a new wastewater treatment plant — that Weiler stressed as a benefit to the town, as well as to ratepayers from both districts.

The Option 2A financing mechanism would include PAWSD lending the town $2.837 million at a .75-percent interest rate, along with the town using a previously secured $1.4 million Colorado Water Resources and Power Authority loan with a 1.875-percent interest rate, for a total debt payment of $4,736,320 amortized for 20 years, at $236,816 per year. A new plant for the town, on the other hand, would commit the town to $247,386 annually for 20 years and $124,458 for another 20 years.

According to the presentation Weiler gave at both meetings, Option 2A would amount to a “twenty-percent reduction in monthly sewer rates … according to best estimates available at this time.”

Should a feasibility study and preliminary engineering determine that PAWSD could provide wastewater treatment for town residents, excavation would begin mid-June 2012, with sewage being pumped to the PAWSD plant by late 2013 or early 2014. Given that current rates for town sewage treatment are at 114 percent above the state average, PSSGID customers most likely hope that Option 2A is not only feasible, but will be completed on or before the estimated timeline.

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