Syracuse water treatment center working up to its capacity

Sept. 24, 2011

After the first couple physical and biological processes of removing waste, the water shown here is "drinkable," but ideally, it will also pass through Metro's advanced chemical treatments.

Syracuse seemed to miss the worst of tropical storm weather that hit the United States late in August, but workers at the Metropolitan Syracuse Wastewater Treatment Plant saw first-hand what heavy rainfall can do to Onondaga Lake.

“We had water coming out of everything,” said plant operator Tom Littlefield, who gave tours during an open house at the facility Saturday. While a little overflow is no cause for concern for the plant, the only place that untreated wastewater has to go is into the lake.

Michael Rockdashil represented wastewater treatment center workers in CSEA Region 5 at the open house. A native of the area, he said he’s watched the lake come a long way, and workers at the Metro facility are generally very happy to have their jobs, but in the stormwater events, they have to work long hours.

Metro, the largest treatment center in Onondaga County, is designed to treat – remove solid and chemical waste – from an average of 84.2 million gallons of water each day and is capable of fully treating up to 126.3 million gallons a day, and in “wet-weather events” like the heavy rainfall caused by the tropical storm Irene, the plant can store 240 million gallons.

From the top of a building at Metro, the view comprises newly accumulated water in treatment tanks, as well as the south end of Onondaga Lake.

When the plant is full, then, the water must bypass treatment. Sometimes it can still pass through part of the system, a situation in which solid waste and debris are removed from the water, but chemicals such as ammonia and phosphorus have to remain. Sometimes, the water, sewage and all, unavoidably goes straight to Onondaga Lake.

During the open house at Metro, operators and engineers presented demonstrations and videos about improvements they have been working to implement, and the challenges they face.

Their focus is now on finding ways to reroute the bypass. An informational video explained that when it rains or snows in the Onondaga Lake Watershed – which encompasses Syracuse and several surrounding towns and villages in Onondaga County – that water eventually runs off into the lake. Anything put on the land or streets that ends up in the lake is referred to as non-point pollution, waste that comes from many sources. Syracuse’s concern is urban waste, which residents cause daily when they pour pollutants like oils and grease down the drain or litter garbage into city drains.

While the plant is doing its job to make sure only clean water goes into the lake, efforts must focus on preventing urban wastewater from entering into the sewage, a task made difficult by wet weather, which Syracuse is faced with frequently.

After rigorous layers of treatment, the water exits the plant by way of this "outfall." The white, foamy bubbles attest to the cleanliness of the water. They'd be visibly dirty if the plant hadn't done its job.

Jean Powers, a process engineer at the plant, said that the improvements to the lake have made strides. “It’s way, way better. The water looks perfectly clear. If you looked at the outfall [where the treated water exits the plant], the bubbles are white. That’s an indicator. If it wasn’t clean, you’d see the colors.”

Powers said that the plant will take steps now to figure out how to store excess water for later treatment, by looking to increase storage on its property. The facilities are limited by space and expense of expansion.

“The whole problem is based on how cities were created years and years ago,” said Powers. “Everything’s paved, instead of green and letting nature absorb the water instead.”

As a result, Onondaga County and partners have set up the “Save the Rain” program, which constructs plans for managing the pollutants that enter the Onondaga Lake and its tributaries. A big goal of Save the Rain is to reduce the occurrences of “combined sewer overflow” or CSO, which reduce water quality by forcing bypasses of the treatment centers.

“This isn’t an end-of-the-pipe solution,” said Khristopher Dodson, a wastewater engineer and the group’s public education and outreach coordinator. “We’re thinking ‘Let’s just treat it where it falls, treat the water at the source.” Save the Rain works to build better infrastructure in the city, and educate residents on practices that harm the watershed.

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