Purple pipes program proceeding

By Matt Richards
Posted 7/5/07

With the recent birth of Baldwin County Utilities, County Commissioners are hoping to offer local developers a chance to construct more environmentally friendly communities at no extra charge.

They're going to lay purple pipes — the universal …

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Purple pipes program proceeding


With the recent birth of Baldwin County Utilities, County Commissioners are hoping to offer local developers a chance to construct more environmentally friendly communities at no extra charge.

They're going to lay purple pipes — the universal code for recycled water — to pump heavily treated wastewater back into the landscape for irrigation and for other nonpotable (not for drinking) uses.

"I've seen three of these facilities in Georgia and you wouldn't even know it's a sewer plant," said County Commissioner and BCU Board President Wayne Gruenloh. "It doesn't smell or look anything like a sewer plant."

Currently, all municipal and private sewer systems in Baldwin County dump treated waste into open bodies of water, according to county administrator Michael Thompson.

This refills the water supply and the materials left in the water naturally decompose. But it takes time to break down and the population of Baldwin County is constantly growing.

"If we double in population our discharge into the streams and bays of Baldwin County doubles as well," Thompson said.

In the early 90's, the San Francisco Bay's natural salt water marsh was threatened by a high volume of discharged wastewater from the San Jose/Santa Clara Water Pollution Control Plant. The result would have been a brackish mixture of salt and fresh water unfit for the survival of species there.

But a $140 million recycling project was completed in 1997. Now, the South Bay Water Recycling Program provides 21 million gallons per day of recycled water for use in irrigation and industry, according to the official website for the Environmental Protection Agency.

Likewise, Baldwin County is at the southern end of the Mobile Delta, an estuary which runs 30 miles long and 12 miles wide. It's where the Alabama and Tombigbee rivers converge into the Gulf of Mexico, and it's Mother Nature's delicate, ever-changing cocktail of salt and fresh water.

"It would certainly be better for the environment to recycle water than to dump it into public water," said biologist Dave Armstrong, local District Fisheries supervisor.

Not only did the Alabama Department of Environmental Management decline to comment on whether recycling water was better for the environment, they leave the decision up to the local water systems, according to Public Relations Director Jerome Hand.

"Folks don't move to Baldwin County to live in a polluted environment," Thompson said.

According to the EPA, substances that may be pollutants when discharged into a body of water can be reused for irrigation. For example, recycled water may contain higher levels of nutrients — such

as nitrogen — than potable water.

The use of recycled water for agricultural and landscape irrigation can provide an additional source of nutrients and lessen the need for synthetic fertilizers.

The end result would be less potable water used and less of an ecological footprint left on the delicate local estuary.

"Cleanup of the local environment is certainly one of the hopes of the commission," Thompson said.

BCU doesn't just plan to offer a cleaner solution to discarding the water; they want to be able to provide sewer services anywhere outside the municipalities.

"The point is to provide good quality wastewater facilities anywhere in the county," Gruenloh said.

Traditionally, sewage system providers built a treatment plant first and grew from there.

"They expand when it's economically feasible for them," Gruenloh said.

But BCU plans on having sewer systems all over the county instead of one central location.

"They're going to size their sewer systems to the appropriate size of each subdivision," Thompson said. "It's a more cost effective use of capital."

BCU recently applied for nonprofit status from the Internal Revenue Service due to the cost of installing all the new technology and the group being a benefit to the community.

California-based ARB Inc. funds BCU entirely and appoints one member to the five-person board. The County Commission appoints the other four.

Although the new technology required is costly, the tax breaks from their nonprofit status is how they plan to offer services at a reasonable price, according to Thompson.

"Quite frankly, any municipality can buy that technology but it would cost more," Thompson said. "If any one of them would do that I think they're worried they'll be noncompetitive."

However, BCU won't be stopped that easily.

"They believe they can compete," Thompson said, "and are willing to do so."

But BCU doesn't look at themselves strictly as competitors.

"If there's an ability for this entity to partner with a municipality we'd be all for it," Gruenloh said.

But whether or not this sewer system will be in new communities will be up to the individual developers.

"The developers will probably compare costs and factor in whatever they choose to factor in," Thompson said. "It's a decision the developers make."