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Pittsfield Compiles Comprehensive Wastewater Management Plan

The Pittsfield city seal
The City of Pittsfield, Massachusetts

This spring, Berkshire County’s largest community adopted a Comprehensive Wastewater Management Plan. Ricardo Morales, Pittsfield’s Commissioner of Public Utilities, spoke with WAMC about the document, which sets out decades of plans for how the municipality handles refuse.

MORALES: This was part of the requirements, back in the beginning of the decade, to have the city develop a combined wastewater management plan that would encompass all the other aspects of maintaining the infrastructure that treats wastewater, like capital spending plans and inflow and infiltration plans and how to tackle those issues, operation and maintenance manuals. And with the new regulations, new permit, at the beginning of the decade, we were asked to put together a comprehensive document that includes everything. And included in there would be some changes as recommended by the EP and EPA.

WAMC: So let's start with what the the plan covers. Walk me through- What is part of the plan, when we talk about wastewater management in Pittsfield?

Well, the plan is really a document that is prepared to assist the city to manage our wastewater infrastructure, really in support of all the significant investments that we put together for that infrastructure. And the overall goal is to benefit and enhance the overall health of the residents of the city. And in that, in doing so, also we better the local environment.

So you talk about how the plan was meant to incorporate these EPA-mandated changes to the system. How exactly are those being worked into Pittsfield's actual operations through the creation of this plan?

The plan breaks down into three phases. We have the overview of existing conditions as part of the first tackle to the plan, and that has all the information needed: demographics and population, infrastructure that serves the city at the moment in terms of wastewater. Also in terms of water, as that is the main source of eventually, for the wastewater system. Then you have phase two which dives into the systemwide needs assessment and that is part of the most comprehensive aspect of this plan, it looks at every single thing that we will be needing. And I should say that as part of the plan, we have to set a duration, a period for what this plan would encompass. And for the city, this is 20 years. So we're looking 20 years into the future, what will we need, what changes will have to be made, what upgrades will have to be performed, what needs to be enhanced or maintained? And that's, that's what the systemwide needs assessment captures. And then you have phase three, which is a capital improvement planning aspect of things where you look at all the funding and backdrop, in the backdrop of all the needs that we need to improve, all the things we need to perform.

A common topic in Pittsfield municipal conversation is about how to save money for ratepayers through the city's infrastructure. Would this plan allow for any better means of reducing costs in the long run?

I'll start by saying the city has historically been under the rest of the state, in terms of the rate paid for water and wastewater. We're talking to the state average, Pittsfield is somewhere in between the 40% of what the state average is at. So that being said, all these improvements, yes, it will definitely go up. The work that we have to implement, it's not cheap. It's not free. We have to pay this somehow. And this being an enterprise fund, we would have to cover that through the rate for the work. And we just hope that we have the capacity and ability to assess the right rate at the right time and for the right improvements.

Looking 20 years into the future, what do you see is the biggest structural changes to the current system that the plan is exploring?

So there's several changes we need to look into. Most of them, in terms of cost, would have to be done to the water treatment plant. We're looking at some improvements and upgrades to the chlorination system. We're working on some more structural work on roof replacements to the plant buildings. But by far, what we're seeing that could be the biggest one amongst all of them would be meeting the new requirements on their impending permit from the DEP that would treat the total nitrogen limits as to what the city's wastewater treatment plant can put into the effluent. And that could be costly given that we- That is not regulated at the moment, although we do have a limit that we strive for. But altogether, I should add that in the 20 year planning period for, for this document we have, for the wastewater treatment plant an overall $112 million worth of capital improvements, inclusive of the $74 million that we had already acquired for the nutrient removal upgrade that is currently underway. And the force main replacement is another $8 million, which were a part of that, part of the same pool of money. So we have roughly speaking about $30 million that get us to from now and into 2040. Covered in all our projects, capital projects for the plant.

And, can you sort of break down the permit situation? It's been a topic of conversation at city council meetings of late: which permit we're exactly operating under now, and which permit we're attempting to prepare for as a municipality?

We're under the permit issued in 2010. And on the consent order, we were mandated to upgrade to meet this permit. And that's what the nutrient removal upgrade is doing, among other things, including upgrade to the changes we're making to the sewer use ordinance and adopting the comprehensive wastewater management plan that we've been talking about now. All those are part of the same things that we needed to improve as a city, as a department, to, to meet the new permit. And then the impending permit that we expect, that any time- It could come in any time. We have word that it will include some limits on the nitrogen removal and that's the conversation we've been having with state and federal governments.

The plan looks 20 years into the future. Does that represent exactly how long you expect the wastewater plant in general, that project to continue for, or what do those two timelines look like?

While the current project we have, the nutrient removal upgrade, that's slated to be completed in July of 2021. Then we have some optimization periods, some adjusting to the new systems, and then we can start thinking on meeting that, you know, the design for the new limits imposed on nitrogen and then designing that facility or changes to the facility, and then talking about acquiring the capital and then we move into the construction phase. So we've been thinking that this is some somewhere in the 10 year period from now before we can go into you know, meeting a new limit imposed on their new permit. And in that timeframe something else can come up and that's what we try to capture in all these planning documents.

Ricardo, thank you so much. You've been excellent today. I really appreciate it.

My pleasure.

Anything about this we did not touch on? We got a, we got a fair amount in there. But you know, there's always, I'm not the expert here. So if there's something we missed, I'm happy to include it.

Well, I think the thing that gets missed in the weeds here, is also the main reason I'm submitting, or I submitted, the comprehensive wastewater management plan to the council for approval- Was a request by the DEP to, for us to be able to lower the current loan we have for nutrient removal project, from 2% interest rate, down to zero percent. And this plan would normally not have to be submitted to the council. As, you know, portions of the plan, things that are included in the plan and definitely get submitted to the council on a regular basis, like the capital spending plan. But then the plan itself, we were asked to submit before we can apply for the reduction to zero percent loan. Another thing that needs to be approved is the changes to the sewer use ordinance which is going to be discussed in tonight's ordinance and rules committee and then expect it to be in the back in the council by the June 9th meeting.

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