With a $5 million funding gap continuing to hamstring the Freeland sewer effort and no solution in sight, two old proposals are being re-floated in hopes of salvaging the project: building an outfall on Whidbey’s west side, and shuttling effluent to Langley.
County officials confirmed they are investigating the requirements of an outfall at Robinson Beach Park in Mutiny Bay, and Langley has extended an invitation to hook into its wastewater treatment plant, a facility using only 50 percent of its operational capacity. The ideas are being considered at a time when Freeland Water and Sewer District commissioners are throwing up their hands in frustration over the seemingly insurmountable costs of the $12.9 million project.
“I’ve been working on this so long… but we always come up with the same thing,” Commissioner John Brunke said.
It’s just too expensive, he said.
“Even if we got 100 percent grant funding, we’d still be the most expensive system in the state,” he said.
“If you look at the sewer project now, it’s not financially feasible,” echoed Commissioner Lou Malzone, president of the water district’s board. “It’s just not.”
An outfall and sending effluent to Langley are alternatives to the district’s current plan to dispose of treated effluent on a 24-acre property on Scenic Avenue, a proposal that’s looking increasingly unlikely due to technical and financial hurdles. At best the site’s geology can only handle drainage for the commercial core, which is just the first phase of the project, and the drainage wells themselves may have more limited lifespans than previously thought resulting in greater cost to utility customers.
A rate study released this year showed that customers could be looking at monthly water bills between a low of $114 and a high of $278 per unit of water used — about 140 gallons a day.
“That’s crazy,” Brunke said. “Seattle pays $52.”
Restaurants and other high-capacity users would see bills in the thousands of dollars.
While affordability continues to be the primary hurdle and the impetus for the two alternative proposals, neither is new. In fact, both have been considered in the past and largely rejected as being cost prohibitive. Outfalls are designed to release highly treated effluent into deep areas of Puget Sound with lots of tidal action; it’s often referred to as a “dilution is the solution” approach to dealing with wastewater. The permitting process is extensive, however, and pipelines are deceptively complex and expensive requiring devices such as lift stations and grinder pumps. And the longer it is, the bigger the price tag.
While Brunke said the average is anywhere from $100-$200 per foot, Island County Public Works Director Bill Oakes declined to even venture a guess. There’s lots of variables, he said, and he admitted it’s been decades since he worked on a wastewater facility.
He has recent experience with storm water lines, such as those installed at Maxwelton’s Dave Mackie Park. Those were about $250,000 each, and that’s just the cost of the pipe that extends from the shoreline to deep water. He’s got plans to rebuild the storm water outfall at the Robinson Beach Park boat launch in Freeland and said there’s advantages of permitting a wastewater outfall at the same time.
“If you don’t do them together, you’d have to go through the most rigorous permitting process in the nation twice… so there would be savings there pairing the two together,” Oakes said.
And a huge benefit for the water district is it would solve the drainage capacity issues that are dogging its Freeland property, and not just for Phase 1A but the entire build out.
The proposal was the result of discussions between water district and county leaders. Malzone said he’s hoping the county will pick up the tab, not just building but also maintaining the outfall. It’s too soon to know who would pay the bill or how a joint venture might work, but Keith Higman, director of Island County Public Health, said the county will likely need to step up if the water district’s efforts don’t materialize.
“Ultimately, does the county have some responsibility? Sure we do,” Higman said.
Though a pipeline would be a public works project, Higman’s been tasked with fleshing out the state’s requirements for a wastewater outfall. He noted that although Holmes Harbor is closer, it’s highly unlikely the state would approve an outfall in an area with low tidal flush and historically poor water quality; Holmes Harbor is a shellfish protection district, and is on a state watch list for water samples showing signs of low oxygen content, the result of which has been deemed anthropogenic.
The other proposal is the brainchild of Langley Mayor Tim Callison. He’s been watching the Freeland project from a distance, and in an interview Thursday said he believes its completion could benefit the entire South End. Sewers would provide a foundation for growth, and the area’s zoning is a “real opportunity to create living wage jobs.”
Langley’s treatment plant has room to handle twice its current load, and Callison got the idea checked out with Pace Engineering, a Kirkland-based firm that’s doing work for the city on other projects. It provided a three-page report highlighting the processes and steps such a project might require for Langley, specifically the updating of the city’s general sewer plan.
Pace provided the report free of cost, the mayor said.
Again, it’s too early to know how a partnership might work, but Callison did say that the perk for Langley is that the commercial core’s effluent might equal about 400 residential connections which would likely lower the cost to city ratepayers.
Brunke and Malzone, who only just found out about the proposal this week, said they weren’t optimistic a pipeline to Langley would pencil out. The distance between the two areas is about 6 miles as the crow flies, and that might simply be too much with the high cost of laying pipe, they said. However, they said they appreciated the offer and were interested in discussing it further.
“We welcome the suggestion, that’s for sure,” Malzone said.