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This summer, the city turned on the pumps and filters at its $114 million Ellis Creek Water Recycling Facility, an enormous four-year infrastructure project and a linchpin in the community?s future water supply.

The completion of the Lakeville Highway plant will allow the city to stop using its Hopper Street treatment site, a 1938 facility once described as being held together with ?Band-Aids and baling wire.?

The new plant could potentially last 100 years, and its treatment processes and methods will be the driving force behind Petaluma?s plan to turn sewage into re-usable wastewater to irrigate landscaping, parks and playing fields ? thereby saving drinking water.

?By using recycled water for urban irrigation, we?ll be able to save that potable water being used right now,? said Mike Ban, the city?s director of water resources and conservation.

Using a combination of treatment methods, including ultraviolet rays and natural wetlands, the plant will produce more than 464 million gallons of recycled water a year ? enough to offset the water use of 1,400 single-family homes, the city said.

After a new eastside reservoir and distribution pipe are built in the next couple of years, the city will begin tying nearby parks and landscaped areas into the recycled water system, Ban said.

?There are a couple of parks along the route, and Casa Grande High School,? he said. ?Those would be the immediate ones right adjacent to the pipeline. Eventually we?ll bring it to Lucchesi and then continue out through the east side, out to parks like Eagle and the Corona area.?

The city is already using a lower class of recycled water, called secondary treated water, to irrigate local golf courses and agricultural land. The Ellis Creek plant will produce what?s called tertiary treated water, clean enough to be used on playing fields and for landscape irrigation.

?The amount of recycled water we can produce here is going to be higher, but it?s the quality that?s the difference,? Ban said. ?Right now, we?re producing recycled water that can be used for irrigation of agricultural land and golf courses, but the tertiary recycled water that we?re going to be producing can be used on school grounds and even for irrigation of edible food crops.?

The completion of the plant is the culmination of a 21-year process to replace the Hopper Street facility.

Through numerous city councils and countless staff members, the city considered both privately and publicly run sewer plants, heard from 3,000 Petalumans who signed a petition asking for the use of wetlands in the treatment process ? and as recently as November, turned back a sewer rate rollback measure that officials said would compromise the plant?s loan-repayment plan.

Grants from the California Coastal Conservancy and the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District helped purchase parts of the 262-acre project site, which includes public-access trails that connect to Shollenberger Park and Alman Marsh.

But the centerpiece of the site is the treatment operation, which transforms raw sewage into re-usable water through a system of screens, ditches, ponds and wetlands.

It?s a unique combination that has been called a ?state-of-the-art? system and earlier this summer attracted the attention of 30 Japanese wastewater engineers, who made a side trip to Petaluma while in the United States for a wastewater equipment expo in Las Vegas.

?There are certainly plants that have components of what we?re doing here, but as far as putting all those different components together in one large plant, this facility is unique,? Ban said.

While the use of tertiary water outside the plant must wait until a distribution system is built, the city is putting that water to use inside the plant ? to aid in the treatment process, irrigate the operations building?s ?green roof? and even flush the toilets.

Since the plant reached ?substantial completion? in mid-June, systems have been running well ? a testament to the effort the city and its contractors put into preparing for the start-up phase, Ban said.

?It has gone very well, and I would attribute it to we?ve got a very good team that worked on this project,? he said. ?Everybody?s who?s been involved with this has done outstanding work for the city. I think the other thing that has helped the project be successful is, we spent a lot of time planning the project ? not only the construction but also the startup, which is a huge component.

?The perception is that you build the plant and that?s all you need to do ? but that?s really just part of what has to happen. The coordination and the testing and making sure that all of the thousands of pieces of equipment that are here function as designed is a very intensive effort, and we began that work from the first day of construction.?

The planning and the careful selection of a project engineer, contractor and construction manager has paid off for the city, Ban said. The original $110 million construction cost has gone up by just 4 percent, or $4.4 million, less than what officials had expected.

?A good range for a job this big is 5-10 percent,? project manager Margaret Orr told the City Council Monday during her final monthly update on the project?s progress.

Orr was hired specifically to oversee construction of the plant and has done ?an incredible job,? Ban said. ?She is really the force behind getting this project completed on time.?

When construction began in October 2005, work progressed quickly ? so quickly that the contractor, Kiewit, thought the project might be done in April of this year.

But the heavy winter rains in late 2005 and early 2006 used up all the expected weather days, inundating the newly graded site and dashing hopes of an early finish.

?It definitely impacted our ability to prosecute the work, but we were able to make up that time over the summer,? Ban said. ?We worked very closely with the contractor to do what we could to help them make up that time, and the contractor did the same thing. Everybody was very interested in getting this project done in a timely manner and not letting something like that delay the completion.?

Since that first winter, the project has proceeded without any major hiccups, he said. Last year, the City Council authorized the hiring of 15 new city employees to run the plant, and nearly all of them are now on board, Ban said.

The city is planning a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the plant and the new trail system on Friday, July 31. Speakers will include Mayor Pamela Torliatt and Supervisor Mike Kerns, representing the open space district, as well as representatives of the coastal conservancy and Congress-woman Lynn Woolsey?s office.

?When this project began, there was a lot of community interest in doing exactly what we ended up with out here,? Ban said. ?The grand opening is going to be a nice celebration to show off the facility that the community wanted.?

(Contact Corey Young at corey.young@arguscourier.com)