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.