Sacramento RegionalSan expands water recycling capacity with new facility

One of the largest public works projects in Sacramento history is under construction, out of sight for most area residents.

Sacramento RegionalSan is upgrading its wastewater treatment facility in Elk Grove, which treats wastewater for customers in Sacramento County and West Sacramento in Yolo County. On average, 150 million gallons of wastewater are treated at the facility.

The updated facility, called EchoWater, will focus on recycling more wastewater. RegionalSan officials say the new infrastructure will be able to clean wastewater so thoroughly that it can be used to irrigate agricultural crops.

Parts of the project are expected to go live later this month. When EchoWater is completed, it will be the second largest such facility in the United States.

CapRadio’s Randol White visited EchoWater’s facilities in Elk Grove and spoke with Sacramento Area Sewer District General Manager Christoph Dobsonwho explained how the project works.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Interview Highlights

Tell us about the EchoWater installation.

EchoWater is the project we are building. It’s an upgrade that stems from some regulatory requirements that we had in 2010, and it’s about a $1.7 billion project to upgrade our processing plant.

It removes ammonia from our wastewater and also filters the water to a very high degree. This water will be so clean that we can use it to water food crops.

The towns in the Sacramento area all treated their own water, and then at some point it was all piped here.

Yeah, there were 22 smaller plants spread across the area and they were discharging mostly into the American River and they all went offline. We centralized and built this big factory here near Elk Grove.

Where does the furthest sewage come from?

Probably somewhere in Folsom would be the furthest point. And it takes about a day for sewage to come from Folsom here.

For someone in Elk Grove?

It may only be a handful, just a few hours.

And most of it is pushed through the system naturally, by gravity?

Yeah, most of our system just uses gravity to sink down. But eventually it gets to a point that’s maybe very deep under the ground and we have to lift it up, so we use a pump station to do that and it pressurizes the sewage, pushes it to a place where gravity can then take over.

It is a very large property. How many hectares are we talking about?

Just over 3000.

And much of it feels like open space. What is this land for?

Okay, so we have about 1,000 acres of treatment area and about 2,000 acres of buffer land. This area is truly a natural wildlife sanctuary.

We have staff who actively manage this property and their main objective is obviously to make a home for flora and fauna, but it is also so that we can be good neighbors to the surrounding communities. It reduces the noise, dust and odors that come from the operation of a treatment plant.

Your team showed me around the facilities and one thing I noticed was that it really didn’t smell that bad. How do you handle this?

Odor complaints are a very important part of our job. We obviously try to limit those, and we do that by having processes covered, for one thing. And then we have odor elimination equipment specifically designed to eliminate those odors. So it smells damn good here at the sewage plant.

Have you ever thought, ‘I just want people to realize what’s going on behind the scenes?’

Sure. I mean, we recognize that we’ve been in this business for a long time and understand that people don’t see it, so they don’t necessarily think about it. But that doesn’t mean it’s not important. And it is a very important underground infrastructure. And then also our sewage plant site is a little out of the way too. And there are buffer lands around this plant. So a lot of people don’t see it either. But obviously it’s very important if you’re flushing the toilet.

A lot of the treated water ends up in the Sacramento River, right?

Yes, that is where our point of rejection is.

And then some of the treated water ends up in what’s called a purple pipe system, which helps water some of the parks in Elk Grove.

Yes. So the purple pipe system is recycled water. We treat this to a very high degree. And then this water can be used safely, currently it is used for ball diamonds, medians and some parks.

How much of this purple pipe water is produced? Is there water park capacity all over Sacramento?

Currently we have a facility that generates approximately 3 million gallons [of water] per day. It is a very small facility located on our factory site. But when EchoWater is finished, then all of our discharge will be available for recycled water. And that’s around 130 million gallons per day on average.

Let’s talk about another RegionalSan project, the Harvest project, which promises to provide recycled water to farmers in southern Sacramento County. How will this work?

We will build a large transmission line and a pumping station to pump the recycled water south. And this water will be used by farmers to water their crops. In return, farmers will significantly reduce groundwater pumping. And that’s the big advantage is that it allows the water table to regenerate.

You have a lot of influxes from all over the region with some 1.6 million customers. What’s the biggest headache for you here when it comes to things going into these pipes from people’s homes?

Anything you’re not supposed to flush down the toilet. One is wipes, they’re sometimes called flushable, but they really aren’t, because they’re nearly indestructible and they clog pumps and other systems.

We also want customers not to throw fats, oils or greases into their system because if you throw it down the drain it will solidify and clog either their drain or our part of the drain, and that will cause sewer overflows.

We also ask people not to throw medicine down the drain, as this is also something that is not handled well in our factory.

Throughout the various stages of the treatment process, the water is sampled and then sent to a laboratory that you have here on site. How many different tests are carried out each year?

We perform approximately 90,000 tests per year, and these tests are for compliance with our regulatory requirements. They also need to help our factory make sure the process is working properly, and that’s the bulk of the testing.

And you send things to other labs when it comes to testing for pathogens that are in water that could cause things like COVID-19 or Monkeypox. How does this process work?

So first of all, some pathogens that we test here, but in particular, there’s a science called sewage-based epidemiology, and that’s where you take the sewage, sample it, and send it to the laboratory.

We work with Stanford and also with a private company called Bio. They take those samples and they test for specific diseases like COVID, and they can get an idea of ​​the concentration in the sewage and that can tell you if the cases may be going up or down. So you can see trends from that.

How accurate was the sampling with respect to tracking COVID?

That’s specific, not on an individual basis, but overall. We get a good idea of ​​the trend.

Shall I say Happy Sanitation Professional Appreciation Week?

Yes, this is our Wastewater Professional Appreciation Week. So anyone listening right now, when you’re using the facilities at some point today, keep that in mind, that there are people working hard to make sure that all of that sewage in the whole region crosses and then empties into the river in a really clean and ecological way.

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