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The city of Eureka has a multitude of utility projects coming down the pipeline, and it’s looking to rate payers to shell out more money for the expenditures.

The city is proposing to increase water rates by a total of 26 percent over five years, which would be evenly distributed. However, sewer rates are projected to increase by 129 percent during the five years, with higher increases in the first three years and lower in the last two. But why such a drastic difference and spike? Well in this LoCO Video Report we head over to the city’s wastewater treatment plant to take a tour and find out more about the projects.

Eureka’s wastewater treatment plant processes five million gallons of wastewater per day, and that’s only in dry weather conditions. When there’s heavy rainfall, it can jump up to processing more than 20 million gallons of wastewater per day. That’s a lot of dirty water.

And although the plant is properly managed, the infrastructure is over 30 years old and breaking down, even recently causing $2.8 million in an emergency project.

Michael Hansen has worked at the plant for more than a decade and is now the acting deputy public works director of utility operations. He explains issues with the aging plant.

“You have the harshness of the saltwater air on the outside that’s attacking everything. Then from the inside, there’s all the hydrogen sulfide and sewer gases that are constantly working and chipping away at anything that’s metal or concrete, which is just about everything around here,” he said.  

Currently the city has a few projects already in the works. First, replacing the covers of the plant’s two sludge digesters (we talk much more about how these nifty pieces of equipment work in the video), which are being custom fabricated in Oregon. Next, replacement of the plant’s grit removal system, which screens out larger material and is the first place wastewater goes when arriving at the plant. Then there’s the on-going project of removing biosolids from the plant.

“We discharge our wastewater into the bay on the outgoing tide but the solid portion goes through the digesters, and goes into holding lagoons. Then it has to be dewatered, and from there, we have to truck that out or have it land-applied somewhere,” said Hansen. “So that’s something that’s a constant issue for us, is finding places to be able to haul that to.”

But these projects are just scratching the surface. Regulatory changes have reclassified the plant’s outfall (the pipe system that releases the cleaned water into the bay) from an ocean discharge to bays/estuaries discharge. Meaning it’s going to cost between $15 and $30 million to upgrade the plant into compliance before 2030. Then there’s an estimated $10 million over five years in maintenance. And roughly $25 million to be spent on the sewer collection system in the next 20 years to address capacity, rainfall and structural issues.

“Over 30 percent of our collection system is more than 100 years old,” said Public Works Director Brian Gerving. “So those things add up to mean that there are far more projects that need to be done for our wastewater operations and that’s compounded by the fact that the fund itself isn’t in a strong a position. Because the revenues from recent years haven’t been covering the costs of all the expenditures, especially when it comes to capital needs for some of these emergency projects.”

Unfortunately these projects aren’t covered by taxes, fees or the general fund. The city’s water and wastewater operations are known as enterprise funds, completely separate from all of the city’s other funding sources.

“And they each function effectively as their each own standalone businesses,” he said. “And what that means is the cost of providing the service to our customers — whether it’s procuring the water, getting it out through the pipes, having our field crews do work on the system, collecting the wastewater or treating it — all of those things have to be covered by the revenues that are generated by our ratepayers.”

Gerving adds that the water rate increases are lower because infrastructure is in better condition, the fund is stronger, and there’s fewer projects to be done. But regardless, increases big or small, are going to have a direct affect on the residents and businesses of Eureka.

Citizens will have the chance to weigh-in on the proposed increases at a 6:00 p.m. special meeting at City Hall on May 16.