Living Machines in Cville? Don't poo-poo the idea
When a delegation from Winneba, Ghana visited Charlottesville several weeks ago, one city official criticized those who might “poo-poo” the idea of a fourth sister city as a waste of tax payer money. An appropriate phrase, as it turned out, because the African delegation visited Worrell Water Technologies, a company known for turning sewage into fresh water.
In 2007, Worrell Water built one of its “Living Machine” waste-water treatment systems–- featured in a 2009 Hook cover story entitled "The Tao of poo"–- in Tema, Ghana, one of more than a dozen such systems the company has installed around the world.
What’s a Living Machine? Well, imagine a man-made, turbo-charged tidal wetland. Basically, waste water is pumped and filtered, and monitored by microcomputers, through a series of cells that use plants in porous gravel to cultivate natural microorganisms that eat up the waste. The cells continuously fill and drain, mimicking the tidal action of estuaries.
Whereas the earth only has two tidal cycles a day–- nature’s way of flushing the toilet–- the Living Machine replicates that cycle 10 to 12 times a day.
“It was my second visit to Worrell Water this past year,” says Charlottesville Mayor Dave Norris, who tagged along with the Ghana delegation, “and I am definitely impressed. It has particularly strong potential in a part of the world like Ghana, where many communities don't have municipal sewage treatment systems.”
Ironically, having a municipal sewage system isn’t all its cracked up to be. In May, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality sent a warning letter to the city, saying Charlottesville must improve its aging sewage systems, which have backed up at least 40 times since 2008 and continue to dump thousands of gallons of raw sewage into local creeks and streams during heavy rainfalls. A citizen has posted video footage of tampons and toilet paper spewing into a creek.
And it’s going to cost a bundle to fix. We’re talking $20 million for the Meadow Creek Interceptor alone, a 24” inch, four-mile pipe that runs West to East across the city to the often-smelly Moore’s Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, which is getting its own $40.3 million upgrade.
According to a Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority study, the Interceptor, which was built in the 1950s, needs to be able to handle five times more volume than it currently does. As a result, every time there’s a large storm, the Moore’s Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant can’t handle the amount of stormwater backed up in the pipeline. Construction on the 36” replacement pipeline isn’t scheduled to begin until next summer.
Meanwhile, the aging sewer pipelines may have slowed several big development projects, most notably Albemarle Place, the massive mixed-use development near the intersection of Route 29 and Hydraulic Road. After breaking ground on the project, developers learned that the Interceptor was already at capacity, effectively stalling the project.
According to Gary Flore, the Virginia DEQ’s water compliance manager, the DEQ has been “very impressed” so far by the response from city, county, and RWSA officials, but admits there is no quick fix.
“The problems with overflows will take a significant amount of time to resolve,” says Flore.
Indeed, another $18 million has been allocated to repair additional collector systems, such as the Stadium Road Collector, an 8,600 foot pipeline that runs from Quarry Park to 5th Street, SW.
Still, as Flore points out, the city will be expected to sign a “consent order” that will hold Charlottesville responsible for fixing the problem in a timely fashion. If they don’t, the DEQ can levy fines of up to $32,500 a day for each unauthorized overflow.
By comparison, Living Machine systems like the one installed in Ghana, are relatively inexpensive. In Gilford County, North Carolina, for example, school officials opted for a Living Machine for two new school projects instead of building a new sewer line, spending just $500,000 for a system that can process 30,000 gallons of daily wastewater.
So what about Charlottesville? Could the natural poo-poo purifier find a use here?
“I suppose if a large new building were trying to demonstrate some innovative principles of green design it could incorporate a Living Machine on-site,” says Mayor Norris, pointing out that such systems might find a limited market in Charlottesville, where a vast sewage treatment system is already in place.
“Obviously there are large stretches of Albemarle County where that is not the case,” adds Norris, “and where a Living Machine could very well make a whole lot of sense.”
However, WWT founder Tom Worrell, who used to own the Daily Progress, thinks his innovative technology could make a “huge difference” right here in town by lessening the strain on the existing system.
"For example, we could build a system for, say, the Belmont neighborhood for a couple million dollars,” he told the Hook last year, “and you wouldn't even notice it was there."