Flush with water:
An unusual recycling project is sure to raise eyebrows in Centre County

Monday, May 31, 1999
By Don Hopey, Post-Gazette Staff Writer


The sewage authority for five fast-growing Centre County communities and part of Penn State's main campus plans to recycle water from the toilet to the tap. It will be the first large-scale municipal project in the state to turn wastewater into drinking water. As such, it will have to suppress the public gag reflex.
 
Dubbed "Beneficial Reuse," the $20 million waste water recirculation project floated last month by the University Area Joint Authority was prompted by discharge restrictions into Spring Creek, a nationally famous, cold-water trout stream.
"Waste water is always looked at as a disposal problem, but we're treating it as a resource," said Cory Miller, authority executive director. "We're going to treat it to drinking water standards -- beyond clean -- so we can do anything with it."
Other locales -- Centerville, Va.; El Paso, Texas; and six California communities including San Diego and Orange County -- recycle waste water to supplement scarce drinking water supplies.

State College has plenty of drinking water, but is facing restrictions at the other end of the water pipe. The solution is the same, however, and that may be hard for some Happy Valley residents to swallow.
"We've done enough research to know it can work here, but we're at the beginning of what we expect will be a rather intensive public process," Miller said. "When you're doing something this different, it's important to get citizens involved early."
The proposal is to process the water using new membrane technology -- microfiltration and ultra-filtration -- possibly in combination with reverse osmosis units that operate like kidney dialysis machines. Ultraviolet or ozone treatment will be used to disinfect the treated waste water.

The authority won't pipe the ultrafiltered waste water directly into the communities' water lines, even though it would meet federal drinking water standards. Instead, the water will be pumped seven miles up into the hills and discharged into Slab Cabin Run, a tributary of trout-rich Spring Creek, and into a nearby wetland, recharging both surface water and the underground aquifer.

The discharge location is one mile from the State College Water Authority drinking water wells. Such indirect recirculation is common among all the communities reusing waste water.

"I don't think there's any community in Pennsylvania that's ready to say 'Let's drink the water that was yesterday's sewage,' until we prove we can make the water that clean," Miller said. "So we'll pump it up into the watershed and establish a history."
A direct connection to the drinking water supply would be possible after several years, he added.
The authority, which serves a growing population of 38,000 people, discharges 5 million gallons of treated sewer water into Spring Creek every day and is limited to 6 million gallons a day. Any more would warm the creek water, harming the trout population and, in turn, the thriving local sport-fishing economy.

"Our disposal options are to pipe the discharge seven miles downstream, out of the High Quality fishery section and discharge there, or go seven miles upstream so we get to use the water again," Miller said.

Miller said the authority chose the reuse option even though it will cost $6 million more over the project's 20-year life span.
"This will extend our water resources. Every drop we reuse is one more drop we're not taking out of the ground," Miller explained. "It's drought-proofing even though we've never come close to running out."

But Slab Cabin Run has. Last summer, the combination of a statewide drought and the pumping of 2.5 million gallons a day from wells caused the creek to run dry. Local sportsmen rescued trout from shrinking pools in the drying creek bed and carried them to streams that contained flowing water.

"It should ease the depletion of Slab Cabin Run's base flow. By keeping 2 or 3 million gallons a day in the loop, that much doesn't have to come from the creek," said Richard Adams, state Department of Environmental Protection regional water management program permit chief.

The major impact, however, will be on the Spring Creek trout, which require cool water to thrive. The authority's warm discharges into Spring Creek at last September's low flow were almost equal to the volume of water in the creek.
"Trout are uncommonly prolific in that creek, and preserving their habitat is important to the economy of the area, as well as a cultural issue," Adams said. Spring Creek's trout fishery, which includes a special regulation area known as "Fisherman's Paradise," is important as a regional, state, even a national, resource.

The project is so cutting-edge that the DEP doesn't have rules to regulate it.
Similar recirculation projects have been done by some private industries and businesses in Pennsylvania -- Knoebel's Amusement Park in Northumberland County heavily chlorinates its waste water for reuse in park bathrooms -- but those are much smaller and don't involved reuse as tap water.

"Only a few states -- California, Texas -- actually have regulations for this type of thing," Adams said. "As we review the project with the authority, the standards we develop will become stepping stones for new state regulations."
He said those waste water reuse regulations could also be applied to the state's new anti-degradation rules for rivers and streams, which require that industries and businesses must consider all alternative treatment methods before they can get a permit to discharge wastewater into protected streams. "DEP is very high on this project," Adams said.
"If this project proves feasible, it would be my hope that it could be used in other situations to reduce stream discharges."
The authority kicked off its public education and comment period for the waste water project last month on Earth Day. Local officials will review and vote on it by February. Miller said approval is expected, with construction to begin next May. Target date to open the first valve is March 2004.

Initially, 3 million gallons will be sent through the advanced treatment process and then through twin 15-inch pipes to the Slab Cabin Run discharge location. The authority will continue to discharge the remainder of its flow as it always has, directly into Spring Creek. When the Spring Creek discharge grows toward the 6 million gallon a day limit again, the authority will expand the amount it sends through the advanced treatment system. "In 20 years I believe we will be discharging little or none into Spring Creek," Miller said. "I fully expect 100 percent of our discharge will be reused." He also expects acceptance of the water reuse plan to follow the example set when the authority began marketing compost made from sewage bio-solids-human waste. "At first people didn't want it. Now we can't keep enough around to fill all our orders," he said. "In Central Pennsylvania, once something is proven to work and it's economical, people will latch on to it and not let go."

And once State College proves the water conservation technology will work, Miller believes other places around the state will use it too. "I don't see it used in the Ohio River valley. Pittsburgh or Philadelphia won't do it because they have big rivers to discharge into," Miller said. But some smaller cities that want to grow and don't have the luxury of a big river running through them will find it useful. "Some of those smaller cities in the interior of the state are not growing because they're strapped by discharge limitations," Miller said. "For them, this approach will be useful. "And once we show it can be done, other communities will latch on and use it as an economical tool to attract industries. If this can provide clean, cheap water, I'm sure they will use it."