How Bremerton cleaned its waters, and came to wonder about the costs

Bremerton has made big advances in water issues, nearly eliminating sewage spills that fouled shellfish beds. But looking back, city officials wonder if more flexible rules would provide greater environmental bang for the public buck.

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A view of the water off Bremerton's Lions Park.

Bremerton has made big advances in water issues, nearly eliminating sewage spills that fouled shellfish beds. But looking back, city officials wonder if more flexible rules would provide greater environmental bang for the public buck.

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.

“We’re real excited with what they’ve achieved. It’s a model for around the state and around the nation, and it’s a model for solving big problems,” said Wilke, who notes that the city worked with his organization as a partner, not an adversary, in fixing the problem.

While most of Bremerton’s improvements were to so-called “gray” or traditional infrastructure, some of the projects were “green” improvements or “low-impact development.” That included the program to unhook downspouts so that rain runoff was channeled into the yard of a home or business where it soaks into the ground.

The city calculated that it was up to 10 times cheaper to treat the water this way, rather than by piping it into the stormwater system. Plus, stormwater can carry a large load of pollutants such as heavy metals, oil and grease, pet waste, and pesticides. The stormwater system often doesn’t clean up those toxics, which wind up in the Sound. When the water soaks into the ground instead, the pollutants are consumed by bacteria or trapped in the dirt.

In the first four years of the project, which started in 2000, more than 500 properties disconnected or planned to disconnect their downspouts. Bremerton officials visited the landowners to advise them in how to reroute their runoff and paid them up to $500 to do so. The effort continues today in Bremerton and elsewhere through programs encouraging landowners to build rain gardens and other low-impact development solutions to handle stormwater. Bremerton was pushing for rain gardens before it was trendy.

Back in 2000, “we just didn’t call it low-impact development,” said Chance Berthiaume, the project coordinator. “We just had infiltration into the ground instead of our sewers.”

Additionally, instead of building a new storm drain along one stretch of street to remove stormwater from the sewers, the city opted to install a 300-foot stretch of porous pavement that allows the rainwater to soak into the dirt beneath it. “Had we been more comfortable and knowledgeable in low-impact development, we probably would have used it more,” Matel said. But when the project was launched in the early 1990s, low-impact development strategies like porous asphalt weren’t well understood here.

Had they been more widely accepted and incorporated into the combined-sewer projects, the city could have saved millions of dollars, according to Matel.

Leonard Forsman never thought he’d see the day that his fellow tribal members could safely pluck clams from Dyes Inlet. The shellfish beds near Bremerton were put off limits in the 1960s. “It’s one of our prime habitats in our ancestral territory,” said Forsman, chairman of the Suquamish Tribe.

Thanks to the huge cuts in the area’s sewage pollution, the shellfish beds are open to the tribe as a commercial venture, to feed their families and for ceremonies.

“When we did finally get it open,” Forsman said, “it was extremely exciting and uplifting for us to know we could return there and harvest clams and other shellfish as our ancestors did.”

While the shellfish reopening is clearly worth celebrating, the cost questions linger. The beds were deemed safe before Bremerton achieved the one-overflow-per-year-on-average threshold, before the last $20 million of investment.

Even the Puget Soundkeeper Alliance's Wilke agrees that it’s a tough question. His organization had little choice but to hold Bremerton to Washington’s standard, rather than ask: How clean is clean enough? “That’s really a tricky question,” he said. “If you come to a conclusion that you can’t do it all, where do you devote your resources?”

While the rules call for one spill on average, it’s not as rigid as that sounds, said Department of Ecology spokesman Larry Altose. When Ecology officials issue the sewage overflow permits, they determine how many years can be included when calculating the average. If it’s 10 or 20 years, there’s a chance for the dry and wet years to balance out, making it easier for a city to meet the benchmark.

“The system is actually quite flexible, and protective of human health and the environment,” Altose said.

Bremerton’s officials hope that other municipalities can learn from their experience. Given how far green technologies have come in recent years, they said they would definitely have considered using more low-impact development in order to save money and help clean up toxic stormwater.

“It’s a more intelligent way to handle the flow,” Knuckey said. If the green technologies had been further along, “we would have considered it in all of the design for sure.”

By using low-impact development, it’s possible that cities and counties could meet the state’s rigorous sewage standards for safeguarding people with much less expense.

And some wonder if the state should set the one-overflow goal at a higher number, or base it on the amount of pollution released rather than the number of spills. Right now, Seattle is working on a $500 million plan to fix its sewer system. Perhaps it makes sense to adjust the overflow rules in order to free up money that could address other environmental challenges, Bremerton officials said, such as cleaning up and curbing the toxic runoff gushing from roads, parking lots and roofs.

“It needs to be considered, because the money’s not limitless,” Knuckey said. “It’s a done deal for us, but it would be nice to see if that threshold of one overflow event per year could be reconsidered.”


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