Splash photo by Josh Johnson

Liberty Lake Sewer and Water District Chief Operator Dan Grogg checks the gauges on a blower housed in a building beside the aeration basins at the district's reclaimed water plant.

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LLSWD faces difficult mission
10/31/2012 9:59:41 AM

By Josh Johnson
Splash Staff Writer

The mission of a new Liberty Lake Sewer and Water District commissioner, should you choose to accept it, includes the following:

Improve the process that transforms sewage entering the LLSWD plant into Class A water pure enough to meet new and stringent permit standards - even though technology doesn't currently exist that can pull this off.

Consider alternatives for some or all of this reclaimed water that would keep it from being discharged into the river, such as irrigation - even though the infrastructure for executing this plan is not in place. 

And find a way to pay for it - even though significant rate increases for you and your neighbors may only represent part of the solution.


LLSWD leaders are looking for someone who can hear a "mission impossible" message like this - and not self-destruct in five seconds.

"There are a lot of responsibilities, but that's OK, that's part of what you're taking on," LLSWD Commissioner Steve Skipworth said. "It's just serving the people of our community. I've done it now for six years, and it can be weighing for sure, but at the same time you can be pretty proud of our community."

Skipworth and Commissioner Tom Agnew will be selecting a replacement for Frank L. Boyle, who was in his 20th year of service as an elected commissioner - the longest tenure in that role in LLSWD history - when he died Sept. 28. Applications are due by 4 p.m. Nov. 9, the same time Agnew and Skipworth have called a special meeting to review candidates. From that review, finalists will be invited to be interviewed at the board's monthly meeting, which has been moved to 4 p.m. Nov. 14.

LLSWD leaders have emphasized a proactive approach to stay in front of the permit deadlines and requirements in order to keep all options on the table, including options that may not exist yet. Because of this, Agnew and Skipworth emphasized that whoever is selected as the new commissioner will have plenty of time and support in getting up to speed on the issues and doesn't necessarily have to come to the job with fully formed background knowledge.

"The job itself in the best of circumstances takes you a while to get your arms around," Agnew said. "I wouldn't expect anyone to expect of themselves to come up to speed immediately with (the district's) challenges."

Not that a love of the community, a basic knowledge of LLSWD challenges and a few spare hours available wouldn't help the candidate. 

"It will be wonderful if they are independently wealthy and didn't have to work so they could spend all of their time," Agnew said with a laugh. "It's like so many public jobs; it will consume the time available, it seems. But the main thing is someone who really wants to do it, and if someone really wants to do it that usually suggests their heart and their head is in the right place."

The job of LLSWD commissioner pays a stipend of $104 per meeting, of which there is one scheduled per month. Additional special meetings are sometimes part of the commissioner's job and also pay the same stipend.

Skipworth said background in how utilities operate was a helpful plus for him when he joined the board six years ago after 32 years in the utility business. He also emphasized that a business background would help the candidate, because several decisions regarding budgeting, rates and financing will need to be made, something LLSWD General Manager Lee Mellish also emphasized.

"The next phase of (upgrading the LLSWD treatment facility) could be $12 million," Mellish said. "Where will that money come from? Partly from rates and connection fees or revenue bonds or what? These are all the decisions that are going to have to be made down the road, and the board and its new commissioner are going to have to make those decisions."

The Liberty Lake Sewer and Water District's waste discharge permit issued last year requires it to remove phosphorus and other toxins from the reclaimed water it puts into the Spokane River at levels the current plant can't accomplish. The permit process impacted all entities that discharge treated effluent into the Spokane River, and the environmental requirements in the permits that were issued went well beyond the capabilities of the systems currently in place.

The district, therefore, is planning a "phase two" upgrade to its reclaimed water plant (the first was completed in 2006) that would enable it to improve its capability to remove phosphorus from the discharge. Along the way, the district must meet the permit's required deadlines, including:

Submit construction plans for phase two plant upgrade: OCT. 1, 2014

Complete construction of phase two  plant upgrade: MARCH 1, 2018

Dial in the upgrade so that the discharge  meets the stringent requirements of the permit: MARCH 1, 2021

Meeting requirements of permit comes with set of challenges

UPGRADING THE PLANT: The Liberty Lake Sewer and Water District board heard an engineering presentation at its Oct. 17 with a variety of alternatives and cost estimates associated with meeting the requirements of the district's permit.  Allison Esvelt of Spokane's Esvelt Environmental Engineering showed a comparison of options and suggested a submerged membrane filtration system may be the district's best bet. The estimated capital cost of such an upgrade, in 2016 dollars, was $12.5 million.

AN EYE TO THE ALTERNATIVES: While the plant upgrade will make significant gains in removing phosphorus from the reclaimed water the district is discharging, it will still fall short when the permit's strict requirements go into effect in 2021, the Esvelt report showed. Ammonia-nitrogen limits would also be exceeded by about 2030, according to Esvelt's estimates.

LLSWD General Manager Lee Mellish said that while the requirements were "the most stringent permits in the country," many other communities are also dealing with similar issues. He said it gives him hope that not only might technology "catch up with all these requirements," but the demand might help keep the costs from soaring out of control.

The alternative, of course, to meeting standards for discharging into a river is to no longer discharge into the river. The Esvelt report estimated the cost of two "purple pipe" options the district is considering. Using the reclaimed water for irrigation at Liberty Lake golf courses would have an estimated 2020 project cost of $13.7 million, chiefly because of the roads that would have to be torn up and repaired to deliver the pipe. Less expensive is a $7.7 million estimate to pipe the water to the Saltese area to be used in a wetlands creation project the county is involved in.

Purple pipe for both options is already being laid, mostly as a "piggyback" addition to projects that arise. 

HOW TO PAY FOR IT: Mellish said an updated rate study may be ready as soon as the district's next board meeting. He cautioned that estimates in the Esvelt report showing sewer rates increase by nearly 70 percent in the next 10 years were very preliminary. Commissioners at the meeting labeled the increases lower than anticipated and lower than what is likely to happen to neighboring systems.