Testing on an experimental wetlands project located at sewer plant number one in the southwest corner of Discovery Bay is set to begin later this year. If successful, the project has the potential to create not only an eco-friendly alternative to removing pollutants from the town's wastewater, but could serve as environmental model for future generations looking for surrogate solutions.
Sitting on approximately two acres of previously unused dry sludge ponds empty since the late l980s the emerging wetlands have transformed the property into a peaceful oasis of cattails and bulrushes; an independent eco-system now home to frogs, snails and an assortment of birds and wildlife.
Town Manager Virgil Koehne, who implemented the project late last year with the support of the Community Services District Board, sensed that the empty parcels might one day serve a higher purpose.
I thought, What a waste of space,' said Koehne. And I immediately began thinking about how we might be able to make this area work environmentally; hence the wetlands.
And the goal? To determine if pollutants such as copper, aluminum and pharmaceutical products can be biologically removed from the wastewater as it flows through the facility; drawn to the roots of the weeds, their toxins effectively absorbed as they pass through a naturally occurring carbon layer. About 20,000 gallons per day of partially treated wastewater go through the wetlands and are then returned to the treatment plant for final processing.
In layman's terms, the pollutants get sucked out of the water, absorbed into the plants and are then either physically disposed of or allowed to decay naturally.
Armed with those objectives, a smattering of information and a lot of questions, Koehne contacted the civil and environmental engineering department at UC Berkeley to offer up a living classroom to the students and faculty in exchange for some expertise and advice.
Professor David Sedlak was thrilled by the invitation. This has been a topic I've been interested in for over a decade, and I've been particularly interested in finding alternatives that are not particularly energy heavy, said Sedlak. So when Virgil got in touch with us with his interest in Discovery Bay, we got very excited. It's great to be helping someone who really wants to solve a problem and not just leave it for someone else to worry about.
It just seemed like a great deal for them and a great deal for us, agreed Koehne, who with the Berkeley students, eventually planted thousands of cattails and bulrushes along the property, and then sat back while nature took its course.
While the project appears simple on the surface, there remain myriad unknowns, including such matters as operational procedures, accountability and ultimate effectiveness. But much also depends, said Koehne, on the California State Water Board, which dictates the safe levels of pollutants in water throughout the state.
Whether this process will remove enough of the pollutants, we don't know, said Koehne. But if it doesn't, then we will have to find other ways to do it, and then rework and re-establish things. It's all still in the initial stages.
Over the next few weeks, solar sensors and probes, acting in place of electric conduits, will be installed at various points throughout the wetlands. The probes will monitor and check the water for temperature, levels of oxygen and salinity, as well as pH levels and clarity.
The information will then be sent to a company in Texas, and from there Koehne and the Berkeley students and staff can log on for instant results.
Koehne estimates that the wetlands project over the course of two years will cost in the neighborhood of $300,000; potentially millions of dollars less than more traditional methods.
There are certainly other ways to remove the chemicals, said Koehne, such as reverse osmosis. But based on what we've seen so far, this (wetlands) seems like the better way to go. There is very low maintenance involved with this and the human error factor is quite low.
But how much we are able to remove and control with this method remains to be seen. However, in the end, I truly believe the wetlands will be better, and I also believe it's important to be a part of the green movement. Will all eyes be on Discovery Bay if this is successful? Could be. We'll see how it goes.