RUPERT • As officials in Twin Falls and Jerome debate how to address their cities’ wastewater needs, their neighbors to the east are completing the kind of investments needed to bring in new wet industries — those like dairy or food-processing companies that require lots of water.
During the past decade, taxpayers in Rupert, Burley and Heyburn shelled out millions for wastewater infrastructure.
Now, similar discussions are starting in Twin Falls, where officials are in the process of forming a citizen advisory committee to guide a plan to address wastewater infrastructure shortfalls. The city has been operating its wastewater plant for several years at about 90 percent of its capacity and has reached the point of turning away new business or turning down expansion opportunities for existing companies because there is no wastewater capacity to accommodate it.
In Jerome, a similar citizen advisory group is expected to deliver a recommendation to the Jerome City Council Jan. 15 to upgrade the city’s wastewater system. Options for a bond issue range from $10.4 million to $56.5 million, and will likely go to voters this year.
City and economic officials in Mini-Cassia argue such spending is vital to keep up in southern Idaho’s economy.
Winning the Vote
Getting voters to approve a large project is never easy — especially when rewards, like future economic growth, may come years down the line.
“Rupert historically has been very conservative. And I think because it is so conservative when we ask voters for something the voters generally approve it,” City Administrator Kelly Anthon said.
Anthon, the city attorney at the time of the wastewater vote, said he remembers the mayor and City Council members going door-to-door talking with residents about the need for the new system.
But the need was fairly obvious — a person only had to use their nose.
The foul odor emanating from the over-worked plant made the objective clear. The Idaho Department of Environmental Quality was also breathing down the city’s neck with the threat of $1,000 per day in fines if a workable plan wasn’t submitted.
Part of the problem, Anthon said, wasn’t just the plant exceeding capacity but the actual mixing of two very different types of waste coming from dairy operations and potato processing plants.
“Each of those wastes requires a specific setup,” Anthon said. “A lot of that odor we were experiencing came from the mixing of those two wastes.”
Biting the Bullet
The city of Rupert recently completed $15.5 million in phased upgrades, increasing its wastewater capacity and adding equipment to make the end product cleaner.
“We could easily handle another Brewster (West LLC cheese plant) without interrupting anybody,” Anthon said.
Wastewater Superintendent Dave Joyce said the city handles 1.5 million gallons of wastewater per day on average, though it fluctuates depending on the time of year. Use rises during the summer months. The city’s peak capacity is 5 million gallons a day – leaving plenty of room for growth.
The city wasn’t in such great shape about 10 years ago, Anthon said.
“At that point, we were in violation of the environmental laws and as part of our ability to continue operating, we had to submit a plan to fix it,” he said.
The city put together a plan to update the system and increase the plant’s capacity. In 2004, officials asked voters to approve a $14.2 million bond issue to pay for the bulk of the project.
The debt was the largest ever approved by Rupert voters, Anthon said. Grants paid for the remainder of the costs.
The project was broken into two phases; the first included new head works, an aerations system, blowers, clarifiers and a new effluent pump station. The second phase, recently completed, worked on solids handling and removal as well as filtration and disinfection.
The end process is producing “fairly high water quality,” Anthon said.
A Step Further
For more than 20 years, Rupert has pumped its processed wastewater seven miles north of to a city-owned farm that it leases to farmers growing alfalfa and sugar beets.
Joyce said the types of crops grown at the site were previously limited to those not directly consumed by humans or those that would undergo further processing, like sugar beets.
With the improvements, Anthon said the DEQ is in the process of monitoring the city’s wastewater operations to see if it has the needed redundancy in its ultraviolet filters to bump the water rating up to a Class B, which essentially would clear the water for use on more types of crops as well as grass and plants. The wastewater is currently rated Class E, Joyce said.
“If the rating is increased, it’s possible the city could reclaim that water for use but it would require new infrastructure in the city,” Anthon said. “Theoretically, the water is already clean enough to use for a lot of things.”
Solids are extracted from the wastewater during the purification process and are composted at a city site north of Rupert, Anthon said. They can then be used as a soil conditioner or fertilizer, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s website.
Burley, Heyburn, Paul See Overhauls
In 2003 — the same year J.R. Simplot’s Heyburn potato processing plant closed and took with it 650 jobs — Burley officials asked residents to pay $18 million to replace the city’s wastewater plant, plus another $7 million to double its capacity.
The now 5 million-gallon-a-day plant, in operation since 2007, increased property taxes — and user’s fees, which jumped from $27.50 to $45.50 per month.
Both increases were a bit hard to swallow for Burley residents, but paid off as several new industries arrived.
In 2012 Burley officials chose a different funding route for another project — approaching a judge for permission to take on $6 million in long-term debt for a $14.3 million upgrade to its industrial wastewater plant. The cost of the industrial upgrades will be paid for through industrial user rates and some grants. The industrial plant serves the city’s industrial park, the former site of the Simplot plant,which was given to Burley after the plant closed.
That approach — called judicial confirmation — bypasses voters. But City Administrator Mark Mitton said the industrial plant serves just three industrial customers and no residential users.
“It didn’t make sense to go through the whole electorate” for the upgrades,Mitton said.
The industrial plant’s capacity is 2.4 million gallons a day. The new upgrades will replace antiquated equipment.
“It will allow us to more efficiently treat the waste we have,” said Mary Lou Herbert, operations supervisor for Burley’s wastewater.
Herbert said the main wastewater plant’s average flow is 2.5 million gallons a day. That leaves ample room for growth, especially after a small expansion boosts capacity up to 5 million gallons a day. That work will be done as soon as the weather cooperates, Mitton said.
A Heyburn $6.2 million wastewater upgrade was complete in 2009.
“The city is in good shape as far as wastewater capacity is concerned,” said Greg Richins, Heyburn’s city administrator. “We could handle another big processing plant and still have enough room for our expected residential growth.”
His plant’s peak capacity is 1.3 million gallons a day. Based on average flows, the city’s system could handle another half million.
Richins said Heyburn’s next project will be studying the sewer lines leading to the plant to determine the location of leaks.
“In some places we’re getting some infiltration of irrigation water,” Richins said. “Once that’s repaired it could further increase our capacity.”
The city of Paul also completed a $3 million sewer upgrade in 2004.
Why Does It Matter?
Burley Economic Development Director Doug Manning said wastewater capacity is one of the top three questions potential new companies ask of cities.
“I’d say in southern Idaho it is king. Because of our natural resources there is a need for wet industry,” Manning said.
Manning said Burley has an ordinance that requires certain types of business to pre-treat their waste at their own expense to reduce the load.
Jeff McCurdy is senior community development planner for Region IV Development, a private nonprofit that works with municipalities on infrastructure projects to promote job creation or economic diversification. Most agricultural companies trying to turn a product into something sellable require water and wastewater capacity, he said.
“In an area that has a lot of high-tech industry it’s not as critical, but agriculture is a big part of our economy here,” McCurdy said.
Most companies wanting a new location or even to expand don’t want to wait for communities to react to their needs.
“Business moves more rapidly than that,” McCurdy said.
Communities grappling with decisions regarding wastewater capacity have to weigh the value of what is already working in the community with adding diversification.
“There’s nothing wrong with breaking through to add someone else, but you don’t want to ignore what you already have,” McCurdy said.
Cities that don’t moving quickly enough to meet business wastewater needs can also lose existing business that wants to expand, he said.
“Even to sustain the economy you have today you have to invest in infrastructure,” Anthon said. “And if you want growth you certainly have to invest in it. Rupert has been very progressive that way.”
Alison Gene Smith contributed to this report.