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EARTHWATCH

Pond Method a Way to Save on Sewage Costs : With Washington providing less money, some communities turn to natural techniques of cleaning waste water.

June 01, 1995|RICHARD KAHLENBERG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

One of the effects of "getting government off our backs"--which, in case you hadn't noticed, started a couple of administrations ago--is that Uncle Sam stops sending us checks.

Lately, that's meant less funding for Ventura County sewer plants (the polite description is "waste-water treatment facilities"). Today's Earthwatch contains a few suggestions about going for help--right over Uncle Sam's head. I'm talking about Mother Nature. Believe it or not, she used to clean up water on her own and maybe can do it again.

Our towns, like those in every other county in America, need to upgrade their water-cleaning infrastructure every few years because of aging, natural disasters, growth or diminishing efficiency of old facilities.

Connor Evarts, a member of the Casitas Water Board in Ojai who tipped me off to the new funding problems, estimates that we're getting only scraps of what we used to get from Washington and Sacramento.

He's in the business of providing Ojai with its clean water before it goes down our drains. But he's one of that breed of water officials who looks at the whole picture and sees problems--and hopefully solutions--coming down the pike.

"I always say that it's the one issue that crosses all political boundaries. Everybody wants clean water," Evarts says.

Evarts recently heard about a thrifty technology, a biotechnology called bioremediation, that relies on integrating a system of specially built ponds into the sewer treatment process. Ponds do not rely on electrically driven pumps or the installation of concrete basins, so construction and operating costs are about one-fifth of current technology.

Water agencies traditionally have always had enough money to do the big-capital engineering projects and didn't need to consider cheaper alternatives, Evarts says.

Is it really possible to clean up your dirty water with odorless ponds full of bulrushes or microscopic algae? Yes--it's happening all over California.

The city of St. Helena in the wine country began using the pond method decades ago. (This installation inspired the choice of a treatment system for Saigon South, a new city of 500,000, designed by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill of San Francisco, for construction adjacent to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam.)

Santee, inland from San Diego, integrated its ponds with a regional park and recreation area. Orange County, before its fiscal debacle, installed some special ponds along the Santa Ana River to clean up sewage.

The newest techniques take up only one-half or one-third of the land formerly required by this method, according to Lorne Swanson, owner of the Martinez, Calif., engineering firm SOA Inc.

Arcata, near the Oregon border, turned a soggy, unsightly industrial waterfront site into a tourist attraction, bird sanctuary and public relations gold mine. It was front-page news in the financial press when the town was able to meet an unfunded federal sewage cleanup mandate with a $60-million tab--by spending only $8 million.

Last year, Congress, looking at its shrinking ability to give us anything , commissioned a report about Arcata's kind of thrift. In a take-no-prisoners manner, the "Report to the Chairman, Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight, Committee on Public Works and Transportation," said federal officials should "help communities achieve the cost savings that are possible with the use of the alternative systems."

Translation: Uncle Sam's broke. Go ask Mother Nature for help.

Details

* FYI: "Water Pollution--Information on the Use of Alternative Wastewater Treatment Systems RCED-94-105" is a report from the U. S. General Accounting Office. Call (202) 512-6000 for a free copy.

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