Rehoboth wastewater: Ocean outfall approach

January 16, 2014

I read with interest the Cape Gazette editorial titled “Action time for Rehoboth wastewater plan.” It seems to favor a preference for a spray irrigation approach but suggests that if the outfall approach is to proceed, a decision in this regard should be made quickly by Secretary Collin O’Mara. Please allow me to share some thoughts on this matter.

My company today, known as Meritract LLC, produces what we call eco-development projects around the country. For the last 20 years I have been involved in the production of wetland and stream restoration projects in 38 different states. Typically, the most important factor in assessing the future quality and ultimately the success of a wetland restoration project is the availability of a permanent water source to “fund” the wetland. No water, no wetland - it’s that simple.

Now, let me briefly shift for a moment to the economics of the issue here. It appears that the primary factor, perhaps the only factor, in ultimately deciding upon an ocean outfall approach is the cost. Cost, as we all know, can be in the eyes of the beholder. While it may appear to be less expensive to take treated wastewater and dump it in the ocean, the question of the “cost” to the reputation of the water quality will continue to remain. Let us not forget that one rationale for not piping the water to a farm field west of Route 1 is that the nutrient levels allegedly continue to remain at unacceptably high levels relative to their impact on the Inland Bays. There is a certain irony here. Notwithstanding the beneficial effects of crop and other vegetative root uptake of these nutrients, concerns exist about the levels of the remaining nutrients. But, dumping the same wastewater into the ocean without any bio-remediation seems to be okay. Perhaps my 20 years of experience in the field cloud my thinking, but this seems to be highly counter intuitive.

On the other hand, let’s go back to the cost issue again. Treated wastewater, really, almost any water, can and should be viewed as a valuable asset if properly addressed. Clearly, this asset (the wastewater) has not been appropriately considered from the asset standpoint relative to the financial cost of the project let alone from an ecological standpoint. What do I mean by this statement?

If the continuous source of wastewater was utilized to support the hydrology to create a restored wetland system, the city or a private developer, working in partnership with the city, could produce a valuable wetland mitigation bank. I have produced these types of eco-developments around the country over the last 20 years. Many have been in partnerships with communities seeking “green” solutions and financial benefits. Were the wastewater engineered to hydrologically “fund” a wetland bank in Sussex County, it is reasonable to expect that such a project could produce wetland credits worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $75,000 per acre credit. So, for example, were this to be done on a 200-acre field, the project could produce revenue of approximately $15 million, an amount that significantly reduces the cost differential between the outfall approach and the inland approach. Additionally, were this project to produce wetlands, perhaps in conjunction with the state itself, the project would likely produce valuable wetland credits which agencies such as DelDOT could use for its future mitigation needs. This, too, would create a cost savings to the state, as it would otherwise have to pay the cost per acre credit for its own mitigation.

While I recognize that the above description may be somewhat technical in its economic details, be assured that it is hardly a new approach to the utilization of a valuable asset - water. My company stands ready to enter into a joint venture with either the city or the state to develop such a project on a moment’s notice. I strongly urge Mayor Sam Cooper and Secretary O’Mara to reconsider this approach before a final decision is made and there is a waste of valuable water and public money.

As a community and a state, we can do much better than to simply take water which some claim is “too dirty” to place on a farm field, but is “clean enough” to dump into our highly rated ocean water and beach. Likewise, we are dumping money into the ocean with the outfall approach.

One final thought. All too often engineers, when faced with a challenge, come up with highly engineered solutions. I believe such is the case with the solution the engineers came up with here to build an extensive, mile-long pipe system into the ocean. It reminds me of approximately 10 years ago when the EPA hired me to consult with the country of Thailand to address their wastewater challenges along the Bangkok River. The initial “solution” there was to run wastewater through two $500 million wastewater facilities - a brilliant engineered solution. However, there was no corresponding infrastructure to collect the wastewater. The engineered “solution” would not be worth a fraction of what the wastewater treatment facilities would cost. The preferred solution - a rather inexpensive series of constructed wetlands, with the highly engineered name of “rice paddies,” spread out over thousands of acres, to capture a significant segment of wastewater. In the end, well over a billion dollars of “engineered solution” were saved, millions more in infrastructure cost were avoided. I am sure today, that the solution functions as well as the engineered solution which never could be built.

In this instance, we already have the wastewater treatment facility and we are only discussing the “nearly clean” effluent from this plant. If it is clean enough to dump into the ocean where we swim, it should be clean enough to assist a thriving wetland to grow. And, after all, the wetland solution is sustainable and produces revenue. This cannot be said for dumping wastewater into the ocean.

Secretary O’Mara is right to not jump into the ocean solution. A faster, wrong decision, is not the best answer.

Additional time to reach a thoughtful, correct solution will, in the long run, serve the interests of us all who treasure the ocean and the bays. After all, how bad would it really be to support the development of say, 500-acres of strategically placed wetlands, using water that would otherwise end up in the ocean where we swim? Don’t you agree that perhaps it is time to consider the creation of additional wetlands to support the Inland Bays instead of dumping the water into the ocean?

Bob Sokolove
CEO & President
Meritract LLC
Rehoboth Beach

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