For decades, the city of Bremerton flushed hundreds of millions of gallons of raw sewage and polluted stormwater straight into Puget Sound. But this summer, the blue-collar town celebrated a significant green achievement, slashing the number of sewage and runoff spills from 600 overflows on average 20 years ago, to nearly zero today.
Now, shellfish beds, once filled with unsafe-to-eat manila and little neck clams, are approved for harvest by the Suquamish Tribe. The more than $50 million solution to Bremerton’s sewage overflows ranged from steps as simple as having households unhook their roof downspouts from the city’s sewer system to building a state-of-the-art treatment plant that uses UV light to blast harmful pathogens.
Bremerton is the state’s first municipality to tackle a complex sewer and stormwater system and upgrade it to the level that the city expects to average no more than one spill per outfall per year —the standard set by Washington regulations. “We’re going to be held up to other communities as an example of what you can do when you put your mind to it,” said Thomas Knuckey, managing engineer in charge of the combined sewers for Bremerton’s Public Works & Utilities.
Eighty-five percent of the costs of the upgrade are being paid for by the city’s utility customers. With approximately 40,000 residents, that pencils out to more than $1,000 for every man, woman, and child in the city. The combined sewer overflow project was on par with other recent investments in major infrastructure in Bremerton, including $49 million spent to build a 1,000-foot tunnel from the ferry terminal, or the $60 million that’s budgeted for the replacement of the 1,600-foot Manette Bridge.
But even as Bremerton’s officials savor their accomplishment, some of them wonder if shrinking the number of sewage and stormwater spills to next to nothing was worth the cost. By 2003 — the year the shellfish beds reopened — the city had spent nearly $33 million on sewer fixes and reduced the amount of pollution spilled to 8 million gallons and 62 overflow events. That means the first decade of improvements reduced the pollution released by well over 80 percent, but the city had to spend an additional $20 million to meet the regulations. Given that high price, “is it necessary to go that last 20 percent?” Larry Matel, managing engineer for Public Works & Utilities overseeing stormwater projects, recently asked. Or would it be better “to help another area get that first 80 percent dealt with?”
A shellfish grower first raised the alarm over the pollution coming from Bremerton in the early 1990s, and the nonprofit Puget Soundkeeper Alliance took up his cause as millions of gallons of sewage-tainted water fouled the Sound each year. “The problem was clearly out of control,” said Chris Wilke, executive director of the Seattle-based organization.
Like approximately 800 other communities around the United States, Bremerton was saddled with a historic sewage system that was intertwined with its stormwater system. That meant that rainwater was intentionally piped into the sewers. When the weather was dry, the system could treat the toilet waste and rainwater and then safely release it into Puget Sound. But when a Northwest storm hit, the system was overwhelmed, triggering combined sewer overflows that spilled a mix of sewage and stormwater.
Puget Soundkeeper Alliance sued Bremerton under the U.S. Clean Water Act and in 1993 the two agreed on a slate of projects to fix the problem by this year.
The strategy was to reduce the amount of rainwater entering the sewage system, including repairing pipes that allowed water to leak into the sewers and redirecting roof downspouts and catch basins that funneled rain into sewage pipes. Bremerton also increased its capacity to handle more water and waste. It built 12.5 miles of new sewer and stormwater pipes, two new pump stations to direct the water flow, and a new UV-treatment facility. It also upgraded existing pump stations and the city’s treatment plant.
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