Howard pushes wastewater reuse

Proposal would help county grow and keep bay clean

March 28, 2010|By Larry Carson | larry.carson@baltsun.com

New large developments in Howard County should plan on reusing wastewater instead of sending it into a Chesapeake Bay tributary, county officials say.

Officials want reuse of wastewater to be the new standard for big projects, because of worries that tightening federal and state restrictions on nitrogen entering the bay could eventually outstrip the capacity of the county wastewater treatment plant on the Little Patuxent River in Savage.

"It's better for the environment, and it's a response to how we're going to grow effectively," said County Executive Ken Ulman, a Democrat, about a new county policy still being discussed.

Officials are applying it now to two projects: the redevelopment of downtown Columbia and a 325-home community at historic Doughoregan Manor in Western Ellicott City that might get public water and sewer service.

Despite a $100 million expansion of the Little Patuxent Water Reclamation Plant, county officials are worried that if they don't prepare now, future development could be threatened if the plant sends too much nitrogen into the river.

"The federal government has made it clear that there will be consequences for failing to implement a strategy to clean up the bay," said Shari T. Wilson, Maryland Secretary of the Environment in a message last week that discussed how the state would tell federal officials it would meet pollution reduction goals.

New regional milestones agreed to last spring will "more than double Maryland's efforts to reduce nitrogen, the most significant pollutant in Bay waters," she added.

Reuse of wastewater is an old idea, but a good one, "as long as it's done correctly," said Jenn Aiosa, Maryland Senior Scientist at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Aiosa and Ching-Tzone Tien of the Maryland Department of the Environment said about 35 sites in the state use treated wastewater.

Those include Severstal, the former Bethlehem Steel complex at Sparrows Point that is near the Back River Sewage Treatment Plant, and Constellation Energy's new smokestack scrubbers at the coal-fired Brandon Shores Plant in Anne Arundel County, which just began using water from the nearby Cox Creek treatment plant.

Wastewater is also used on golf courses at Fort Meade and at Sparrows Point Country Club, Tien said. Using the water on vegetation has an added benefit, Aiosa said.

"You can actually get additional nutrient removal" from water used to irrigate fields and plants because they absorb some of the nitrogen, she said.

Kelton Clark, of the Patuxent River commission, pointed out that because of evaporation cycles, "all water is reused water," and all area runoff eventually ends up in the Chesapeake. "Yes, this is a tool we need," he said.

Requiring large projects to be responsible for their wastewater "puts us into our safety cushion" regarding plant capacity, said county public works director James Irvin.

The Doughoregan project would be much smaller than the Columbia redevelopment, which calls for up to 5,500 new homes and roughly 6 million square feet of other new buildings, but the estate does not currently have public water and sewer, a fact that has stirred opposition among neighbors. Irvin said that the county's plant could handle waste from the new homes, but he'd like to treat and divert as much water on as much of the 892-acre estate as possible.

Irvin is overseeing a $100 million expansion of the Little Patuxent Water Reclamation Plant that will boost its capacity to 29 million gallons a day by late next year. But the plant has no further expansion room, and currently planned projects would leave a small margin of safety to handle unseen opportunities and problems, he said.

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