Juneau's aging water, sewer utilities in need of upgrade

Assembly to consider $1.4 million toward upgrades Monday

Posted: Thursday, February 19, 2009

Patches welded to the outer surface of the city's sewage incinerator keep 1,350-degree flames in check at the Juneau-Douglas Treatment Plant and offer one indication of the unit's impending retirement.

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Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

Over the incinerators' hum, Juneau Public Works Director Joe Buck pointed out the patches.

"Band-Aids," he said.

Several elements of the city's aging sewer and water infrastructure are in need of major repairs or replacement, and money. In the incinerator's case, Buck said stop-gap repairs and extra careful maintenance will have to stretch its operating life until a replacement is secured.

An inspector who visited in the fall said the 18-year-old incinerator was well-maintained, but had only three to five years left, "a little more dire than expected," Buck said, putting his department in a procedural time crunch to secure funding and permits to get a replacement before it fails.

If it does, the city has 30 days of storage space for the solid byproduct produced at the city's two primary wastewater treatment plants, said Water Utility Superintendent Liam Carnahan. If it came to that, the city would have to ship it away for proper disposal at great expense.

In December, utility officials had sought the Juneau Assembly's approval for monthly rate increases from $56.01 to $58.25 for sewer service and $23.06 to $23.41 for water, an extra 3.3 percent collectively. The rate increases would have raised an extra $1.4 million for operations and maintenance, which includes capital improvements of existing infrastructure.

In January, City Manager Rod Swope offered an alternative that would offset the rate increases. He suggested using half of a $2.8 million pot of excess money from a 1 percent temporary sales tax earmarked for the Downtown Transit Center and parking garage underway, improvements to Statter Harbor in Auke Bay, sewer line expansions and a new chairlift at Eaglecrest Ski Area.

A public hearing and final reading of the ordinance associated with Swope's proposed alternative to the rate hikes is expected during the Assembly's meeting on Monday.

The $1.4 million for the utilities breaks down to:

• $350,000 to repair and improve aeration basins at the Juneau-Douglas Treatment Plant. "Juneau got its 35 years out of these things," Carnahan said. The basins mix air into wastewater, promoting the growth of helpful microbes that digest sewage.

•$70,000 to study ways to dramatically reduce the output of biosolids at sewage treatment plants. The biosolids are the result of the microbes' work. Reducing the volume of biosolids produced reduces the workload on the incinerator, which takes in nearly 17 million pounds a year.

• $110,000 for pre-design work on repairing and replacing the incinerator at the Juneau-Douglas Treatment Plant.

• $158,000 for major mechanical repairs at the Mendenhall Wastewater Treatment Plant.

• $462,000 to improve the pump station at Twin Lakes.

• $100,000 to replace old sewer piping under Berners Avenue in the Valley.

• $150,000 for rehabilitation or expansion of the Last Chance Basin well field, which supplies most of the city's drinking water, but has become less efficient over time.

Some of these allocations are supplements to existing capital project funds, and some are new projects.

• Contact reporter Jeremy Hsieh at jeremy.hsieh@juneauempire.com.

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