Wednesday, January 12, 2011

City School Northampton: Week 9 - Public Works

This week at City School was in two-parts. We had a tour of the Northampton Water Treatment plant which I have already written about. Then we all sat down and learned some of what the Northampton Department Of Public Works does and how they operate and more than that. That was last Spring.We heard about Sustainability, an overview of the DPW, about Wastewater, Highways, and Solid waste. As usual, as I write this, I lose energy at the end, but this class was kind of long and the class also lost energy at the end. If you are patient, and I guarantee that you will learn something about the responsibilities of your Municipal Government today.

Energy and Sustainability

Chris Mason is the City of Northampton's Energy and Sustainability Officer. He spoke to us about a pending application for designation as a Green Community. This sounds like just a title, but such a designation allows the city to be eligible for grants and programs, and this means money. There is a Sustainability Plan for Northampton which has two goals - saving energy and reducing greenhouse gases. I have not read this plan, but I'm sure it has a lot of good stuff in it. Mason told us about a project to do inline hydro-electric power on the outflow of the Water Treatment Plant. (I think it is still awaiting funding.) This could generate power which is one of the large costs of distributing water to the City.  We heard about a $6M Engergy Serivces Project (since approved) which is budget neutral that will add capital-improvement efficiencies that will pay for themselves over time. This is through Con-Ed Solutions which come with a guaranteed performance return.Here's the Energy Reduction Plan from last May.

In general efficiency has the best return and the least cost. (This is true for your home. If you change to lower wattage light-bulbs and insulate, this is the best cheapest thing you can do to save energy and money. That and turning down the heat and using less power, but in that case you'll need sweaters and not be afraid of the dark.) Northampton is a special place. We have the highest number of residents participating in Green Energy programs on their electric bill which means that money will pay for City projects such as putting solar energy (photo-voltaic) on the James House. Green Energy also pays for those free energy audits from CET. LED lighting was installed near the parking garage which is expected to break even in two years. There's more of course.

Department Of Public Works

We heard from Ned Huntley, the Director of Public Works. Some information about the DPW: 81 employees and a $19M budget of which $14M-$15M are from Enterprise Funds. Enterprise Funds are self supporting. They have a revenue stream. In this case of the DPW, this would be billing for use of water, sewage, and garbage and other things. Utililty rates are set to fund 10-20 year budgets. There is a lot of planning involved. The City has 4 engineers. They must design things like stormwater systems. The have a GIS system and GPS so they can locate utilities. As you may guess, they have lots of roads, pipes, and conduits buried and they need to keep track of all this.

If you look at the DPW website, you will see a list of things they are responsible for. Each one is a big bucket. Now I know that my job is easy (although don't tell my boss).
  • Cemeteries
  • Engineering
  • Flood Control
  • Parks
  • Recycling
  • Solid Waste
  • Sewer
  • Stormwater
  • Streets
  • Water
  • WWTPlan - this is the waste-water treatment plant near the Connecticut river.
The DPW is overseen by the Board of Public Works. These are volunteers which are approved by the City Council. They meet twice a month. They also do other things.

Water Division

David Sparks is in charge of the Water Division of the DPW. He spoke about how they handle water in Northampton. In 1974, Congressed passed the Safe Drinking Water Act. It was later amended under 'Decent Bush' (this was the cutest thing I've heard.) Anyway, based on that, the City has to sample water for bacteria monthly, and they don't just do this once and in one place. They test for lead and copper and almost a 100 other contaminants. The Water Division has 14 employees, 30,000 customers, and a budget of $26M. There are 160 miles of pipe and 1863 hydrants. 3 reservoirs active, 2 active wells, and 4,000 acres of watershed. The water plant has a capacity of 6.5 million gallons per day, and we use 3.2 million! (And heck, I don't even have a pool.) The reservoirs are the Ryan Reservoir, West Whately, and Mountain Street. The wells are Spring Street and Clark Street.

You'll notice that the Water Treatment plant is located in Williamsburg. Northampton owns land there. They consulted the Williamsburg residents when building the plant and they have made it a priority to not disturb them. Water is treated to remove organic matter. This water is from reservoirs, so I assume there are leaves and fish poop in there which is the source of the organics. Standards require lower concentration of organic material which is why the City had to build the plant. Water is treated by going through a mixer, a clarifier (getting material to drop out of solution) , carbon filtering, disinfecting (chlorine). There are plans to add UV light disinfecting. Then this all goes into a 4-million gallon tank for storage and later distribution. They have to maintain the right PH of the water to limit pipe corrosion and also so old lead pipes in buildings don't corrode and leach led into the water. With all that going on, 7.2% of the water is still lost or unaccounted for.

The DPW has 3,000 water meters with automated reading - there is a transmitter. They install 50 new hydrants every year - it's just in the plan, so in 60 years they might replace them all. About 15 streets have water pipes from the 1800s. These are the ones that burst from time to time.

Stormwater control does not pay for itself. There is nobody to bill for this, so it simply costs money.


John Carver, the Deputy Superintendent of Wastewater was up next. The Northampton wastewater treatment plant opened in 1952. Before that sewage was dumped directly into the Connecticut River. Yuck. The secondary treatment plan opened around 1980. In 1998, there was a major upgrade. They have an annual budget of $4.3M, spend $150K on chemicals, $300K on electric, and $480K cart 'sludge' (solid stuff) to be incinerated Connecticut.

Currently there are 10 employees, they are licensed to Grade 5 level, so they can each do multiple jobs. Most are at higher grades. Here is some info about how they are licensed. If I recall, I think my nephew was licensed in North Carolina. When we visited my Niece there, he took us on a tour of the treatment plant. It was a while ago, so I'm not sure if it was Water Treatment or Wastewater Treatment.

All this reminds me of a major clarification I must make. You may have figured it out by now, but Wastewater Treatment means treating sewage, effluent, i.e. yucky stuff. Some other places this process might be more thorough, so that the treated water is actually what you drink at the end. Fortunately for us, we have our reservoirs, so for us 'Water Treatment' alone means treating clean surface or well water. And now back to our class...

Wastewater goes through a similar process as regular Water Treatment, except there is more yucky chunky stuff and nobody human drinks it in the end. There is more filtering of solids ("Northampton eats a lot of rice." Blech.) and controlled biological activity going on. Big solids that are filtered out in the beginning are trucked over the the landfill.

The Wastewater plant is located near the dyke at the Southern end of town near the River. As such, the WW workers are trained yearly in flood control. The workers also train in putting wooden barriers in place to close the Dyke. There are pumping facilities - these of course are out of date and require $ to replace.

On the horizon are compliance with regulations about Nitrogen limits. Anything dumped in the Connecticut eventually makes it's way to the Long Island Sound. There will need to be a new, big project to deal with this. Look for this on your sewage bills.

Those who could make it were treated another day to a tour of the wastewater (sewage) treatment plant. Unfortunately I could not attend. But I have it on good authority that you could make an appointment for a tour of DPW facilities. The tour might be as complete as what we at City School experienced, but an experience I promise.

Highway Department

Lastly, we heard from the brand new Highway Superintendent. At the time of our class, Richard Parasiliti had been in this capacity for a month. (Right about now, he is probably dealing with the 15 inches of snow that current is on the ground here.) He had been working for the city for 20 years. Snow and ice is a major concern. It costs the city about $335K to deal with this. Employees across all departments participate (probably because they all have trucks and streets and parking lots, etc.) They work overtime, they have 49 routes, they sometimes plow multiple times. They may sand the streets, etc. Usually snow-removal money is spent before the end of winter. The State allows deficit spending for snow removal, so they can go over budget. Well, they have to go over budget if it snows too much. Usually they are $400K over. After plowing, they must do snow removal, which means they cart the snow away. I think a lot of it winds up in unused parking lots on King Street. Think about it, if it costs a lot one winter to deal with snow, then we end up losing money. If it doesn't cost much, we save money - Yeah.

Solid Waste

Our last presenter was Dave Veleta, the Landfill Manager. Here's a story about him and the landfill accompanied by photos. As many of you know, the Northampton Landfill is near capacity and is scheduled to close, but I won't get into that here. Solid Waste is another Enterprise fund. It currently pays it's own way. Up until 2004, the Landfill was overseen by the Board of Health, now it's under DPW. It is overseen by Mass DEP and the EPA. The city operates the transfer station on Locust Street. And the Landfill on Glendale Road. Please see their website about what they recycle. The Landfill is not a Dump - which is an archaic term that connotes people dropping old mattresses off in a field at the end of town. This is in fact what goes on at the Landfill, but today things are sorted and sometimes recycled and the whole shebang is tightly regulated.

In my household, we take our trash and recyclables (paper, metal, glass) to the Locust Street facility about once a month. We usually have at most two black garbage bags which cost us $2 per bag to dispose of. We pay $25 per year for a permit to dump trash. In my opinion, these fees are cheap. We have a compost heap in the backyard and were participating in a test municipal composting program until 'The Incident'. (To learn more about 'The Incident', leave a comment.) By accounting, for our disposables ourselves, I'm sure we produce less trash than an average home, and I'm also sure we could do better. I wish we Americans did not create so much trash.

The landfill accepts 50,000 tons of trash a year. 39 communities can and 16 do bring trash to our town which accounts for 11%. 8% comes from city sources and drop off. 77% is commercial waste and from private haulers (this might be your garbage if it's picked up by someone.)

Dave told us some of the history of the Landfill, how it is capped and lined. He discussed how gas (from organic decomposition) is piped around (it's now collected and used to generate electricity - enough for 500 homes), and how they collect rainwater (leachate) and pipe it over to the Wastewater plant. They cover the solid waste (our trash) with soil or a tarp (there are standards for this.) They seem to hate snow, since this interferes with covering the trash. I'm sure that we'll be hearing more about the Landfill in the near future, since there currently is a committee looking at it's future.

And there you have it. A long night for me at City School, and a long web page for you. Thank you for getting this far. I hope you enjoyed today's class. Please leave comments and tell me what you think.

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