The challenge with rain and snow!

Rain and snow.

By Ed Edmondson, City of Richmond

Rain I get … and I also get the love/hate we have with snow.

As manager of a facility that treats water, I am keenly aware of water – the effect it has on low-lying areas, our watershed ─ the James River ─ and our utility operations.  Water, in the form of rain, sleet, snow or ice creates challenges for plant operations, large construction projects, farming, and other outdoor activities.  In 2018 the City of Richmond experienced historic rainfall.  Last year, Richmond had 190 days of measurable precipitation, a record-setting 63.5 inches of rain. The last time Richmond had this much rain was in 1889 when a record 71 inches of rain fell.

Excessive rainfall impacts not just our ability to operate our plant efficiently, but any operation. When severe wet weather events occur, water flowing into any facility may exceed the capacity of one or more treatment units in the treatment plant. This can result in operational challenges and restrict a plant’s ability to process that water.  For a facility like ours that treats combined storm and sanitary water, high precipitation amounts increase flows, the amount of equipment in operations, and the time spent on operations and maintenance to accommodate excess flow.

Biosolids is a byproduct of the wastewater recycling.  They are generated every minute of every day, regardless of weather conditions.  Biosolids are rich in organic matter and nutrients and can be applied as a soil amendment to farmland and cultivated forests. In Virginia, it’s a safe and common practice.  The City of Richmond believes that providing biosolids to farmers who choose to use it on their farm and forestland is the best management option for our operation.  We believe that biosolids helps farmers improve and maintain productive soils, while stimulating plant growth.  Effective biosolids management options help ensure these useful materials are properly stored prior to use and recycled on land while protecting the environment.  All of this – the treatment of wastewater, the use of biosolids on family farms and the storage of biosolids, either at the plant or at an off-site facility – is permitted through the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).

So back to wet weather.

The volume – the significant volume – of precipitation in 2018 has impacted our facility’s ability to recycle biosolids on farmland.  Because of the recent and continuing impact of rainfall, municipal treatment facilities across Virginia have been affected.

While our facility has biosolids storage capacity, that capacity has been stressed to capacity due to the inability to land apply the biosolids.

The state’s Biosolids Regulations restrict the type of crops that can receive biosolids, the timing of application, soil conditions, and establish other parameters to ensure safe use. Generally, the crops that receive biosolids are corn, soybeans, small grains, and pasture or hay fields. Given the seasonality of the crops and different growing seasons, biosolids application can occur nearly year-round with restrictions mostly during the winter months. However, due to the excessive precipitation received statewide, it has not been possible to land apply the biosolids during the normal application periods. This has put an undue strain on the storage of biosolids at our facility and across Virginia.

So, what do facilities like ours do? We have a maximum amount of material we can store on site.  We also use the storage capability of vendor(s) to supplement that storage.  The recent extraordinary rainfall has created challenges for everyone involved in biosolids recycling: utilities and generators, land application contractors, and the farmers and growers that apply and incorporate this material.

In order to resolve the biosolids storage issue and the limited window available for land application, Richmond and other generators throughout the State are working closely with our contractors and our state regulators.  We are all looking for cooperative ways to address and manage ongoing challenges caused by A LOT of rain.  This condition is compounded by the season we’re in – winter.  It’s typically our most challenging time of year to beneficially land apply biosolids.  However, the continuous wet weather has made this typically stressful time of the year even more so.

Although biosolids management solutions are guided and constrained by best management practices, seasonal conditions, permits and regulations, we choose, in every way possible, options that support our commitment to protecting the environment.  This choice is at the core of every single decision we make.  It applies now – when we are inundated – and will continue when new conditions arise.

Biosolids land application remains a viable, economical, and beneficial use of a valuable resource.  Adapting management practices in variable conditions, such as those we currently experience, is a challenge.  But is also builds connections and relationships within and outside of the utility community. These relationships will be invaluable in building a sustainable future for Virginia and our citizens.

Ed Edmondson is the Richmond Wastewater Treatment Plant manager.  He has served in numerous capacities in water treatment during his professional career. His work in wastewater recycling provides Ed personal and intellectual satisfaction because it combines interests in biology, chemistry, plumbing, and engineering. According to Ed, cleaning wastewater is stimulating since it protects public health and the environment while producing biogas and biosolids that can be used beneficially. Ed serves on the Virginia Biosolids Council Board of Directors.