Living Machines in Cville? Don't poo-poo the idea

onarch-ghanaguysThe Ghana delegation (Head of Warrior Group Joseph Baiden, Transport Minister Mike Hammah, and Municipal Chief Executive's Representative Godfrey Kwame Nkrumah) meets with Worrell Water Technologies researcher Eric Lohan.

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.”

onarch-esalenWWT's Living Machine system at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California.

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.

onarch-livingmachine"It works how the earth works," says WWT founder Tom Worrell.

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."


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,...
Actually, the Meadow Creek Interceptor runs away from the Moore's Creek Treatment Plant. Makes no sense, right? Till you consider that the Treatment Plant used to be out by Pen Park, what? 30 or 40 years ago? This is a large contributor to our sewer system's chronic overflow problem, virtually all of the sewage in this town flows to a point where the treatment plant used to be and then has to be diverted downstream along the Rivanna (and pumped the last half mile or so) to where the treatment plant is today. Instead of a comprehensive solution that gets more sewage flowing in the right direction, we get a $20 million band-aid from RWSA that guarantees another 50 or 100 years of problems. The less sewage that follows the old route to Pen Park, the less sewage that has to be diverted through undersized pipes easily susceptible to flooding by storm water and runoff. Take that $20 and re-engineer parts of the system to deliver sewage directly to the Moore's Creek Plant and you'll solve many of these issues.

I think the public ought to find out from RWSA just how much money does it expect to spend in the next 20 years. I think the city and ACSA ought to tell us the same. I also think we ought to get rid of RWSA.

..but then, we'd have to admit we goofed...and we're elected officials and could lose our jobs...same old same old.

Interesting points. Seems like something smelly over at the RWSA.

True Conservative, take a look around Charlottesville. You really don't want the Public Works Department in charge of anything more than it is already managing poorly. Not that I think RWSA (or RSWA) is a good thing.

Why not Charlottesville? I think in this case as in most, an entrenched and lazy political establishment is to blame. There is no real opposition to the local Democratic Party and that means we get mediocre city councilors like the wimpy Norris and his lapdog Szakos who piddle around with pet project slike inviting the nation's homeless to move here while ignoring the real business of preparing the city and its infrastructure for the future.


CvilleEye, you're absolutely right; we now have elected officials on the RWSA board and either they should insist that we see more than an ever changing 5 year CIP, and 20 years sounds reasonable for immeditiate and long term sewer and water infrastructure. This agency has been mismanaged for so long, and wasted so many millions of dollars, that I agree, it should be disbanded, and the localities should run this out of thier public work dept.; couldn't possibly be worse than what we have now, a total lack of maintenace of our reservoirs for over 40 years and neglected and now state mandated sewer repairs.

The public is going to get hosed if they don't demand greater accountablitiy of the money being spent by the RWSA and the RSWA . It's time for a change of leadership in this community with more action and more innovative ways of approaching problems such as outlined in this article . If Africa can do it - why not Charlottesville ?

Dave McNair and his layout editor,

Newspapers are written for adults, and we should not find baby talk in them. It doesn't belong here.

Look at the subhead. Dismiss, discourage, ridicule, disregard, disrespect, spurn, reject, etc are words adults use. "Poo-poo" is baby talk.

Part of the reason educated literacy collapsed in the US is because writers and editors were quick to abandon it. You can change your own course on that in a heartbeat.

Oh Snap! McKinley: No you Di-ent! Dang Dawg, I mean OMG!