By Rick Manner
On May 8 the Urbana & Champaign Sanitary District (UCSD) held a special board meeting to discuss a general policy regarding selling the treated sewage, or wastewater treatment plant effluent water, produced by UCSD. In addition, we discussed a potential effluent sale to Cronus Chemical, a urea fertilizer plant that is considering locating near Tuscola. People who provided written questions about this policy should have received replies by now. This article is meant to explain the issues further and to reply to some recent letters to the editor.
Cronus Chemical is seeking to purchase 6.3 million gallons per day (mgd) of UCSD effluent, or about a quarter of the 8 billion gallons of sewage that UCSD treats in a year. While it is natural to hear "water purchase" and be concerned about drinking water, please note any sale of UCSD effluent would not harm the drinking water supply. In fact, every gallon of effluent sold would be protecting the Mahomet Aquifer by satisfying Cronus' need for water without using new water from the aquifer.
A sale will also not impact the amount of water recharging the Mahomet Aquifer. The raw sewage you provide UCSD is water that is already removed from the aquifer. UCSD treats the sewage and the resulting effluent is discharged into either the Copper Slough or the Saline Branch of the Salt Fork. This water flows out of the county in a few hours. It is not held here to recharge the aquifer.
If there ever were a proposal to build a lagoon to encourage recharging, it would not be allowed to be filled with UCSD effluent. The Illinois EPA would prohibit this. Using rainwater for recharge is a better and legal solution. Rainwater is cleaner and more plentiful. There is 50 times more rainwater than effluent in the county.
While I am proud of the work we do at UCSD, we do not clean your sewage to the point where it should be considered drinking water. You don't pay us enough to do that, nor should you.
So giving the effluent water a second use before it leaves the region is worth considering. Especially when you consider it will be providing 1,500-plus construction jobs, 150-plus permanent jobs, and providing a local source of fertilizer for farmers.
During a wet year like we're having, there would be virtually no impact from selling effluent. The creeks have an abundant supply of rainwater and UCSD's flow is a small fraction of the total. However, in a drought, UCSD's effluent is a large fraction of the Copper Slough's and the Saline's flow. If the sale were to occur, in drought years flow to these creeks would be reduced substantially.
Looking at the worst day of the drought of 2012 specifically, UCSD discharged 4 mgd to the Copper Slough and 11 mgd to the Saline. If the sale were already done, these would have been roughly 2 mgd and 7 mgd. This is equal to 25 and 80 gallons per second, or about what towns of 25,000 and 80,000 people discharge (if there are no commercial and industrial flows). So even with this sale and drought, the creeks' flow will be about what other towns provide and much more than what is natural in headwaters streams.
Next, while UCSD's flow is almost entirely an artificial addition to the creeks, we recognize our flows help maintain the creeks' health. The sale policy includes that we must discharge a rate that is sustaining to the creeks first. Any sale contract will require if there is not enough effluent for both purposes, that is the buyer's problem.
Another essential factor for aquatic health is physical structure.
And while the country has spent billions improving the chemistry of the water by reducing toxins, we have spent very little to maintain or repair habitat. For both the Copper Slough and the Saline there are unspent remediation dollars from spills that occurred in 2000 and 2005.
Regarding the Copper Slough, there is an improvement project that has been on hold while the Department of Natural Resources finds a funding partner to make the remediation funding go further.
If the sale of effluent goes forward, UCSD will offer to provide these matching funds and will work with DNR and local landowners to get the improvements done quickly.
This will be part of a plan where UCSD will set aside a fraction from such sales to provide for habitat improvements. The goal here is to provide at least $500,000 in local dollars over the next decade — to be a reliable funding source for continuous improvement to area habitat.
Finally, as an aside, there is no proposal involving UCSD and any coal mine.
Rick Manner is the executive director of the Urbana & Champaign Sanitary District. Please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 217-367-3409, ext. 230. For additional information regarding UCSD or the policy mentioned, visit http://www.u-csd.com.