Falls City residents consider their wastewater alternatives

One option will double the wastewater treatment plant's capacity

FALLS CITY -- Falls City residents who attended a public forum Oct. 22 agreed that they are in favor of a $1.9 million dollar expansion of the city's wastewater treatment facility.

The 18 residents who attended the meeting listened to City Administrator Rick Hohnbaum and Bob Wallis of Wallis Engineering explain five different options for upgrading the facility.

The choice that most attendees favored will double the current capacity, allowing 357 homes to connect to the public sewer. It will leave the drainfield in its current location, under the high school football field.

The City Council will make a final decision on which alternative to use in early November and then submit a final plan for approval to the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).

City Budget Committee member Ron Carey said the bottom line when it comes to choosing a plan is cost. He, and other residents at the meeting, said they favored alternative No. 2 because they thought they could probably get grant money to fund most of the project.

"My message to the city council is to consider the financial impact on the citizens," he said. "If I could, I'd pick No. 4, but that's like my shopping list for Christmas. The problem is the price tag."

No. 2 was the least expensive option that still expanded capacity. Going with the cheapest option, No. 1, would have fixed problems but not expanded the system's capacity. This meant that connecting another 16-18 homes would have maxed out the system. Any other new businesses or residents would have to put in their own septic tanks, as about 60 percent of the city's residents already do.

Earlier in the year, the city council had been leaning toward No. 3, which would both expand capacity and move the drainfield off school district property.Ideally, the school district would like to see the facility moved off district land, but board members are committed to doing what's best for the community, Hohnbaum said

"We were getting a stronger feeling from the school district at that time that they wanted it off their land," Mike McConnell, of the utility advisory board, said. "The thought was to aim for three, but we could always back down to two."

Even with No. 2's doubled capacity, some Falls City residents would still have to use private septic tanks. There are already about 400 houses in the city limits.

The city has been working on developing a plan to improve the wastewater system since 1998.

In 1998, the DEQ issued the city two notices of noncompliance, one because of overflows at the Fair Oaks Pump station and the other because of a problem with the recirculating tank.

At that time, the DEQ waived the fines the city was subject to and entered into a Mututal Agreement and Order (MAO) with the DEQ. The MAO is a legalling binding document that requires Falls City to submit a plan for improving its wastewater system by Nov. 2001. The plan must include one perferred alternative and one backup alternative.

Many of the attendees said they thought that the current drainfield's location wouldn't be a problem in the future.

"The only time there has been anything surfacing was when they drilled to put in lights and didn't look at the map and hit the drainfield," Mayor Ginger Lindekugel said.

Hohnbaum said that several years ago, when workers placed lights on the football field, they accidently broke one of the pipes that serves the drainfield, but didn't realize they'd caused any damage. Since then, sewage has surfaced occasionally. Just three months ago, the city dug up part of the field and discovered the broken pipe, which has since been repaired. They don't know if all the surfacing incidents, including one in July 1998 attributed to a valve malfunction, were because of the broken pipe or other possible problems.

Not everyone was convinced that the current drainfield is now okay. Alan Bogner of the DEQ, who has worked on the wastewater issue in Falls City for six years--longer than anyone else--was concerned about it.

"They call me the institutional memory of this project," he said. "Officially, there have only been a couple burps. The reality is there is a fear that it has been overloaded or abused at times. It could last 15-20 years, or it could only last one year."

Wallis pointed out that drainfields are biological systems, like the human body.

"I think someday it will plug," he said. "Trying to guess when is a good question. It could be another 15-20 years. That's like getting up and looking in the mirror and asking how much longer you are going to live."

Alternative No. 2 will provide land for a backup drainfield.

Attendees agreed that one of the toughest issues in deciding which alternative to go for was not knowing how much grant money they might get to help pay for the project. The Oregon Economic and Community Development Department (OECDD) and the United States Department of Agriculture's Rural Development program are two likely sources of grant and loan money. Tom Lasher, a community development planner for the Mid-Valley Council of Governments, said it is nearly impossible to predict how much money Falls City might receive. Attendees discussed the city of Aurora, where citizens did much of the work to construct their new wastewater system themselves and thus saved $300,000.

"With a $750,000 block grant, self-help and maybe a little ingenuity, maybe we could attain No. 2 without a huge cost," Carey said.

Funding agencies can provide low-interest loans for any money grants don't cover.

Hohnbaum said the funding agencies he's talked to would want the money to repay the loans to come from property taxes, instead of the rates the city charges the sewer system's users.

That means the issue will have to go to voters for approval. Hohnbaum said it would probably be on the ballot in November 2002.


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