It?s a state-of-the-art system that is already attracting international attention. The plant, located on 262 acres off of Lakeville Highway on the southeast end of town, is unlike any facility of its kind.

Its primary purpose, of course, is to treat raw sewage. But it also is designed to transform sewage into re-usable wastewater to water lawns, parks, golf courses and playing fields ? saving millions of gallons of more expensive potable water in the process.

The city will celebrate the opening of the facility with a ceremony on July 31. At that time, local residents will begin to realize the wisdom of the city?s decision to use wetlands in the treatment process instead of building a traditional, closed facility. Open-water settling reservoirs, creatively designed in the shape of the endangered salt marsh harvest mouse, move the water from stage to stage by gravity feed ? not costly pumping ? and provide habitat for birds and animals.

Although the plant went online this summer ? replacing the badly outdated 70-year-old Hopper Street treatment site ? it will be a couple of years before the recycling component is fully operational. Right now, the plant is producing secondary treated water used to irrigate two golf courses and nearby agricultural land. But the Ellis Creek plant is designed to recycle water to a higher quality, called tertiary treated water, which will be clean enough to be used to water school grounds and irrigate edible food crops.

An exciting byproduct of the plant is the adjacent Ellis Creek trail, which will provide a new destination for bird-watchers, nature lovers and hikers. The new trail links to the south end of Shollenberger Park?s 2.2-mile trail loop. If you start at the trailhead next to the Sheraton Hotel, the total distance past Alman Marsh, through Shollenberger Park and along the Ellis Creek trail and back is about 8 miles round trip. The opening of the Ellis Creek segment of the trail is expected to attract thousands of birders and other eco-tourists to Petaluma. Visits from birders could even help to boost the local economy.

Parts of the project site and wetlands were purchased with grants from the California Coastal Conservancy and the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, enabling the city to create the public-access trails at very low cost.

Despite these laudable achievements, not everyone is happy with the new plant. Petalumans for Fair Utility Rates placed an unsuccessful measure on the November 2008 ballot that would have rolled back water and sewer rates. Voters wisely rejected that reckless proposal after realizing it could have bankrupted the city.

But the PFUR folks are back again, this time collecting signatures for yet another costly ballot proposition to roll back sewer rates to their 2006 levels and cap future rate increases to the consumer price index.

While lowering sewer rates sounds good on the surface, this ill-advised proposition would devastate the city?s finances and services beyond the level already wrought by the recession. What signature gatherers are not telling people is that if their measure passes, city services would have to be drastically slashed in order to repay a multi-million-dollar loan from the state to build the plant. Moreover, the city would be forced to default on the loan, have its credit rating shredded and face probable bankruptcy.

The city made the correct decision to replace its failing, circa-1938 sewer plant with the new one in order to meet increasingly stringent state guidelines for wastewater discharge while also producing recycled water and reducing demand for more expensive potable water. The state loan carries an interest rate of just 2.4 percent, saving local ratepayers $60 million in interest charges.

To finance the new plant, the city adopted a rate structure that calls for increasingly higher rates over a five-year period that began in January 2007. The increases have left Petaluma?s rates in the mid range as compared to other cities in the county. While utility rate increases represent a financial challenge for many families, especially during a recession, the reality is that building a new sewer treatment plant was not something the city could avoid doing.

Responding to citizens? legitimate concerns about rates, the city has hired an independent consultant to evaluate the current rate structure against the operational, maintenance and repair costs of the new system. The results of the study, expected next year, could produce ideas to reduce operating costs and potentially, the amount of pending rate increases.

If you?re approached by a signature gatherer promising how much money you can save if you sign their petition, you might want to ask how they propose the city will find the money to repay the loan without the necessary revenues.

Or invite them to go for a walk along the restored and expanded wetlands that constitute Petaluma?s new, state-of-the-art wastewater recycling facility.