$20M in wastewater treatment improvements lauded
Nothing could stop Mother Nature now. A historic series of flooding in March of 2010 had caused the waters of the Pawtuxet River to steadily rise, and they would soon crest the levee that protected the 15-acre wastewater treatment facility of the Warwick Sewer Authority, ultimately causing around $14 million in damages in addition to immeasurable harm to the local environment.
The flood shut down the facility, which treats an average of 5 million gallons of wastewater a day, for a whole week. Those who witnessed the disaster firsthand looked back on the flood last Thursday with grittily lucid recollections; the kind of memories you may wish to be able to forget, but are unable to.
However the mood of the event was not of loss but of hard-fought success, as those same city, state and federal workers and government officials gathered on a sunny day at the revitalized treatment facility to thank the tireless work of many individuals who banded together to solve the crisis and implement $20 million in improvements, ensuring that such a disaster won’t happen again in Warwick.
“This is a far happier day than the one that Mayor [Scott] Avedisian and [Warwick Sewer Authority] Chairman [Peter] Ginaitt and I spent standing up on that off-ramp looking across a large brown lake that covered this entire area, through which street lights and a little bit of building showed here and there,” recalled Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of the flooding.
The celebration event was scheduled to recognize those who helped plan and gather funding for a five-foot-higher levee hill to prevent a 500-year flood disaster and a new phosphorous removal facility to satisfy stricter wastewater regulations – from Senators Whitehouse and Jack Reed to personnel from FEMA, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management and the dedicated employees of the Warwick Sewer Authority.
“Thinking about how we got here, two words come to mind: persistence and collaboration,” said WSA executive director, Janine Burke-Wells. “You can’t be an instant gratification person and work in government. It takes a long time to get things done sometimes, but it’s all the more rewarding when you do finally accomplish what you set out to do.”
Collaborating was a necessity in the wake of the flooding, as a task force was assembled to assess the damage and figure out what to do next. Federally, the WSA would eventually secure $3.6 million from FEMA for the levee improvements. Locally, the Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank’s State Revolving Fund picked up the remaining costs of the levee and the phosphorous facility with low-interest loans. City insurance covered about $10 million in the damages.
In Congress, Reed worked on a provision through his seat in the Senate Appropriations Committee to ensure that the city and state share of responsibility for the costs to repair would be only 10 percent instead of the normal 25 percent, which he said saved Warwick ratepayers about $600,000. Statewide, Reed said the flood caused in the neighborhood of $100 million in damages.
“It was not an easy road to travel. Back in March 2010, there was 75 million gallons of rain, wastewater and stormwater on this 15-acre site,” Reed said. “Not only is this protecting and providing service for the city of Warwick, it’s ensuring that pollution doesn’t go into Narragansett Bay and harm the bay further. We’ve made remarkable progress cleaning the bay and we don’t want to stop.”
Mayor Avedisian expressed happiness that the city was able to take the negative experience and turn it into an opportunity to improve its services and protect against future crises.
“That only happened because we had great federal partners in our Congressional delegation, between EPA, FEMA, REMA, all the city employees, the Rhode Island Interlocal [Risk Management] Trust that was very serious in making sure we got started immediately,” Avedisian said. “The Warwick Sewer Authority staff, incredibly fantastic people...[who showed] how, when you have total crisis, you have to respond and make things work.”
These improvements may pay dividends in the future, as the country must face the reality of global warming. The issue was addressed by both Senators, as well as Bill Patenaude of Rhode Island DEM, who mentioned the findings of a statewide analysis which showed that seven wastewater facilities were in danger of being inundated by flooding in the event of a 100-year storm, which has a 1 percent chance of occurring every year.
“We know it’s [negative consequences of climate change] coming,” said Reed. “The question is are we going to be smart enough to get ready for it, or are we going to wait for another flood like 2010 and be overwhelmed and spending seven years recuperating. I hope not.”
Inside the new phosphorous facility
Peter Ginaitt, Chairman of the Warwick Sewer Authority Board, put in perspective the size of operations for the Warwick wastewater treatment facility to those in attendance at Thursday’s event.
“What you see here today is a plant,” Ginaitt said. “What you don’t see is an invisible 300 miles of collection system, 48 pump stations, all the things that were also compromised during the flood.”
An important new piece to those expansive operations is the phosphorous removal facility, which sits in a nondescript brick building in the rear corner of the facility, accented by two huge pumps outside the front door. The facility was an essential addition to the facility in the wake of changing regulations in regards to the allowable amounts of phosphorous that can be discharged into the environment through wastewater.
On the main floor inside the building is a whirring cacophony of swiftly-moving water flowing through large pumps and in channels in the floor, where oil-based polymers and sand help bind to and sink heavy particulates, including phosphorous, out of the wastewater, before the water is then pumped out of the building to be further treated.
Two floors underground are two huge, 6,000-gallon tanks of aluminum sulfate – essentially bleach, to further treat the water – standing tall parallel to a computer monitoring system which depicts two digital numbers, one for the phosphorous levels of the water entering the facility, and another to show the negligible amounts of phosphorous in the water exiting the facility.
A dizzying array of pipes, gauges and switches sprout like a jungle throughout the building. In the middle of the building is the center control room, which is the comprehensive brains of the entire operation that controls various functions and allows WSA employees to monitor and manipulate the huge facility continuously.
Once the water is treated for phosphorous, it gets treated with the aluminum sulfate and is then treated with sodium bisulfate, which essentially neutralizes the bleach used in the previous step. Once this occurs, the water flows through one last separator before flowing back into the Pawtuxet as treated, clean water.
In closing the ceremony, Ginaitt expressed his heartfelt appreciation for all the work that has gone into revitalizing the important facility, and for their continued work moving forward.
“I just wanted to thank everybody from the bottom of my heart for everything that they’ve done,” he said. “But in particular the men and women of this authority and the board that makes so much of this happen around here.”