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Just three and a half years after opening what was considered a cutting edge, environmentally state-of-the-art, waste water treatment plant, Petaluma city staff says the facility is unable to process wastewater from many businesses that are part of the town's burgeoning food processing industry.

According to Public Works Director Dan St. John, the nearly $120 million Ellis Creek Water Recycling Facility, which sits on 262 acres of land off Lakeville Highway, is currently unable to process certain types of sludgy waste generated by dairies and breweries. As a result, local businesses like Clover Stornetta Farms and Lagunitas Brewing Co. are forced to truck their high-density waste water to either the East Bay Municipal Utility District in Oakland, or the Napa Sanitation District, at considerable cost to the businesses.

The incapacity for such waste is also impacting the city's ability to recruit new food processors to town.

"We're trying to attract food manufacturers to Petaluma," said Anthy O'Brien of the Petaluma Chamber of Commerce's economic development committeein, who has been speaking with city staff recently to see if the city's capacity to handle such waste can be expanded. "The plant may require some updating in order to handle the solid wastes food manufactures produce, but we need to address it."

"We have some big successful businesses in town that are asking if we can take on their high-density waste water, but our plant was not configured to (do so)," said St. John. "When I hear that other nearby agencies can accept high density waste to their sewers, I think, &‘why can't we'?"

The Ellis Creek plant, which opened in July of 2009, came after more than 20 years of City Council debate and took four years to complete. It was touted as a facility that could last for more than 100 years with treatment methods that would allow Petaluma to turn its sewage into usable irrigation for landscaping, parks and playing fields, thereby conserving the city's drinking water.

While the plant is delivering on many of its promises, recycling waste water waste water and reducing the city's drinking water usage, some wonder how creators of the new facility could have overlooked such a large portion of the industrial population in their planning, especially when the city's General Plan specifically calls for the expansion of such industries. Gary Imm, former CEO of Clover Stornetta, said when community talks were being held to get feedback on the design of the Ellis Creek plant, he got the impression that high-density waste processing would be included.

"There was a lot of discussion with dischargers of high density waste over what we would pay for rates if we could dump our waste with the city," said Imm. "We thought we came away from the meeting with a plant that could handle us and a fee schedule to pay for our high strength waste. But obviously we did not. Why that happened is a mystery to me."

John Fitzgerald, a civil engineer who has long been involved with water issues in Petaluma, said that the sewage treatment plant became highly politicized and that high-density waste processing may have been set aside in favor of other priorities, like environmentally friendly features. "It was a time when the progressives on the council were very much behind this plant and it was going to be the most green, advanced showcase of all sewer treatment plants, to the point of sacrificing some important business logistics," he said. Longtime City Councilmember Mike Healy added that the city had been under pressure to minimize the costs of the plant, and said that the design went through several rounds of &‘value' engineering during which several components of the original design were dropped. "There were some significant design changes from beginning to end," Healy said.

Top earners in Sonoma County government

Search pay and benefit information for county employees and employees of county-overseen districts by department, job title, name or salary here.

Top 10 earners, by pay, plus county supervisors

1. Gerald Turney, $341,821, Deputy, Sheriff’s Office
2. David Berges, $260,201, Sergeant, Sheriff’s Office
3. Mark Provost, $257,329, Deputy, Sheriff’s Office
4. Veronica Ferguson, $256,530, County Administrator
5. Redacted*, $247,251, Sergeant, Sheriff’s Office
6. Spencer Crum, $246,434, Sergeant, Sheriff’s Office
7. Jose Acevedo, $242,148, Deputy, Sheriff’s Office
8. Grant Davis, $240,710, General Manager, Sonoma County Water Agency
9. Jill Ravitch, $239,516, District Attorney
10. Michael Raasch, $237,918, Sergeant, Sheriff’s Office
94. David Rabbitt, $167,594, District 2 Supervisor
100. Shirlee Zane, $165,577, District 3 Supervisor
103. Susan Gorin, $165,388, District 1 Supervisor
155. Efren Carrillo, $155,901, District 5 Supervisor
233. James Gore, $145,152, District 4 Supervisor
*Name not released due to involvement in undercover operations.

Another issue is that the success and growth of breweries wasn't foreseen 10 years ago. Leon Sharvon, CFO of Lagunitas added that while longtime businesses like Clover Stornetta were involved in the original design discussions for the plant, breweries like his were not because they were simply too small at the time.

"The issue of what to do with our waste water wasn't even on our radar of things to keep track of 10 years ago," Sharvon said. "We were so small at that time that we never thought we'd reach a point of generating the amount of waste water where we would need the city's resources."

Sharvon added that Lagunitas, which today trucks its high-density waste to East Bay Municipal in Oakland, will spend approximately $1.5 million in 2013 to do so.

St. John said that the current plant might have the capacity to take on some of the local food industries' waste water, but it would require testing to know for sure. If the tests showed that the plant did have capacity to process some of the heavy duty waste, it would have to get additional permitting from the state. He said that a future option could be local businesses pretreating their waste water so that it's easier on the plant, and then dumping it with the city. But pretreatment options are also a pricey method for businesses. Sharvon said that pretreatment equipment could cost Lagunitas anywhere between $2 and $12 million, depending on how much pretreatment the city would require.

"If we can find a viable solution for under $5 million, it might be worth it," Sharvon said.

In the meantime, after hearing the concerns of local businesses, St. John and city staff have spent the past year studying the plant, trying to decipher ways to make it more business-friendly, while still meeting the needs of the rest of the city.

"Our main concern is finding a way to make the plant more attractive to current and future businesses while not affecting or raising rates for our residential customers," said St. John. "We're going to try to make it a priority for the City Council to assess over the next year."

St. John said he will be presenting at the City Council's Feb. 2 goal-setting session, in the hopes of possibly creating an advisory board that could study the best ways to streamline the plant's processes.

(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at Janelle.wetzstein@arguscourier.com)

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