As communities across the nation discern how to make significant new investments to their aging infrastructures, the City of Valdosta met a recent wastewater challenge head on with a careful combination of diverse funding sources, public education, and community support.
The city operates two wastewater treatment plants—the Withlacoochee Plant and the Mud Creek Plant—which have large wastewater treatment capacities and perform several stages of treatment to remove over 98% of the pollutants in the wastewater before it is discharged into local waterways. During heavy rainfall events, stormwater caused inflow and infiltration (I&I) within the sewer collection system and was a major contributor to wastewater spills. Furthermore, the Withlacoochee Plant, which was not in a flood zone when originally built, was severely flooded and damaged in both the 2009 and 2013 regional flood events. The 2009 regional flood was a declared disaster event and the city had to wait over three years for a final decision from FEMA. While waiting, the city assessed the level of damage, immediately sought all avenues of assistance, applied for funding for the necessary infrastructure improvements, and proactively acquired 75 acres of land to relocate the treatment plant to property outside the 500-year flood plain and at an elevation approximately 60 feet higher than the existing plant site.
MEETING THE NEEDS OF A GROWING CITY
The city has invested approximately $220 million in capital projects for its water and wastewater systems over the past 22 years—that’s an average of $10 million a year to meet the needs of a growing city. These investments include a $20-million expansion to the water treatment plant, a $40 million expansion to the Mud Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, over $10 million on wastewater system improvements such as major lift stations upgrades, and inspecting and repairing over 75 miles of sewer lines.
Valdosta also has multiple other projects underway that, once complete, will identify and eliminate sources of stormwater I&I and wastewater spills that occur during heavy rain events. These projects include the construction of four new lift stations, over six miles of force main, a new headworks structure for the future Withlacoochee Wastewater Treatment Plant, and a 6-million gallon equalization basin to handle stormwater I&I into that facility—at a cost of over $36 million. In June 2014, the city awarded a $23 million design-build project for the new Withlacoochee Plant. In addition, smoke testing of the entire 317-mile sewer collection system—of which 120 miles have been tested to date—has been underway since 2013 and will continue through 2016 to identify and eliminate sources of stormwater I&I. The city has also inspected approximately 50% of its 6,523 sewer manholes through its Replacement/Rehabilitation Program, which began in early 2011. Since then, the city has either replaced or rehabilitated over 100 manholes and has committed to rehabilitate a minimum of 30 manholes per year.
While the City of Valdosta makes necessary improvements to its infrastructure, an identifiable force is working against them. The city is located in the lower portion of the Withlacoochee River and Little River basins, which drains 2,186 square miles of South Georgia, with approximately 1,500 square miles that join just west of the city near Highway 133. Since approximately 99% of the stormwater in Valdosta comes from other communities as far north as Crisp County, city officials have facilitated discussions with key stakeholders—including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, FEMA, GEMA, U.S. Geological Survey, and other jurisdictional agencies—to document the issue, seek solutions, and develop a regional plan. While the purpose of the force main project is to relocate portions of the collection system out of these low lying areas to remedy the wastewater spills in the collection system, it will not alleviate the continued flooding risks in low-lying areas that occur during regional heavy rain events.
ENGAGING THE COMMUNITY
While flooding and wastewater overflows are not popular topics among citizens, the city’s transparency and continued efforts to communicate with citizens have proven favorable, resulting in a clear understanding of the situation and educated discussions. Public meetings, printed information, an updated website, and open lines of communication, to name a few, were employed—and continue to be—to keep citizens up to date on the progress.
DIVERSE FUNDING SOURCES
As a result, citizens approved a SPLOST referendum in November 2013 authorizing $55.4 million in dedicated funding for the plant relocation, force main project, and inspection of the remainder of the sewer collection system. The city applied and was approved for a low-interest GEFA loan that it has utilized to accelerate the projects—otherwise the city would have to wait until all SPLOST funds are collected, which will not be until 2019. By using SPLOST proceeds for both construction and debt retirement, the city can have these projects completed and in use by spring of 2016—making the sewer system improvements the highest priority.
The elected officials and professional staff have worked diligently to protect the interests of Valdosta citizens and are confident that the Withlacoochee Wastewater Treatment Plant relocation and improvements to the sewer collection system address will prevent future wastewater spills in our city. The city seeks to continue conversations with stakeholders regarding regional flooding, eagerly hoping to identify solutions for both the city and its regional neighbors; however, this will take the cooperation of several local, state and federal agencies. Through perseverance and steady implementation of these plans, Valdosta will be well-prepared to meet our wastewater needs for the next 30 years. For more information, visit www.valdostacity.com/utilities.