Price tag could be $12 million
The City of Driggs is staring down the barrel of high costs to address its wastewater treatment plant, which is nearly at capacity and has caused years of headaches with the Environmental Protection Agency and Idaho Department of Environmental Quality.
The plant was installed only seven years ago and cost $10 million, funded in part by a zero-interest DEQ loan and an Idaho Department of Commerce block grant. The city saved money by choosing an innovative multi-stage activated biological process plant, which uses bacteria to digest the contaminants in wastewater. Driggs touted the new plant as an affordable, environmentally friendly, efficient solution. In 2013 the Valley Citizen described it as "the most cutting edge wastewater treatment plant in the state."
However, the plant has not delivered on those promises. Since nearly the beginning of plant operation, the city has been out of compliance with its water discharge permit permit and has been putting too much ammonia into a tributary of the Teton River.
In 2017 the Environmental Protection Agency negotiated a consent agreement with the city and charged Driggs a $13,500 penalty for being out of compliance. While the DEQ has taken over administering water discharge permits in Idaho, Driggs is still regulated by the EPA because of the consent agreement. The agreement has a two-year deadline upon which the plant must be in compliance, and that April deadline is drawing near.
Last year, the city hired Forsgren Engineering to perform a facility study of the plant. The $100,000 study was split between city and DEQ funds. The study targeted the city's aging sewage collection system, parts of which will soon need to be upgraded, as well as the treatment plant. At a recent city council meeting on Feb. 4, Forsgren engineer Dave Noel presented his alarming findings: not only is the plant still discharging too much ammonia, it's also nearly at capacity.
He explained that the plant was built to accommodate around a 4 percent annual population growth, but that seasonal visitation spikes each summer have greatly increased the demand on the plant. He said that by 2023 the facility will likely be above capacity all the time, not just in the summer.
"We have a short period of time here before the capacity of the treatment plant is completely used up," he warned council.
Noel explained that the city's options are either to fix the ammonia problem in the short term at substantial cost, or to spend even more to expand and renovate the plant, which would address both the capacity and the ammonia problem.
"Forcing the issue by spending millions of dollars just to comply with this April deadline will really make it difficult if not prohibit the ability for us to take care of the bigger issue, which is capacity," Noel said.
Unfortunately, the estimated cost to overhaul the plant to increase capacity and change to a conventional treatment system is over $12 million.
"I recognize the difficulty in abandoning this capital investment and moving to something different," Noel said to the city council.
Mayor Hyrum Johnson told the Teton Valley News that he and public works director Jay Mazalewski aren't entirely convinced of the study's conclusions, or of the final cost estimates for renovation, and they want to use some of the city's other data to further analyze the plant. They're also talking to Victor's public works department to pinpoint usage, and getting a second opinion from the operator of the Teton Village wastewater plant, which sees more extreme visitation number fluctuations. It's possible that water infiltration somewhere in the system is inflating the numbers.
Johnson doesn't think that the EPA will take punitive measures if Driggs misses the April deadline, as long as the city is clearly trying to solve the issue.
"We started getting nervous last summer when it seemed like we weren't making headway on the problem," Johnson said. "But the EPA and DEQ have been at the table the whole time, and they know we're working on a solution, not sitting on our hands. We may have to enter into a new consent agreement that addresses both issues simultaneously."
If the council opts for plant renovations, sewage rates will increase in Driggs and Victor.
"We as a city need to consider putting more money into our water treatment plant but that in turn goes down to our taxpayers and water users who are already screaming at the top of their lungs about the price of water and sewer," Councilman Wade Kaufman said at Tuesday's meeting. "We just gotta pull up our big boy britches and deal with it. We're going to have to unanimously as a council and staff agree that this is the best solution. The question that I would have is, another seven years down are we going to be in the same gosh dang puddle complaining about the mud around our knees? Is this going to be the fix for the next two decades instead of the next seven years?"
At the end of Noel's presentation, the council members agreed to digest their options and bring any questions and concerns to the next meeting on Feb. 18.
Johnson said that he and city staff members will seek other sources of grant funding, including the Army Corps of Engineers and the US Department of Agriculture.
"We'll be pounding the pavement for grant funding," he said. "My biggest concern is the cost and impact on our community. The goal is to continue to grow in a common sense, smart way, and I'm concerned that rising utility costs will drive people out into the county."