By Joy Hampton
The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — Reuse of treated municipal wastewater (a.k.a. sewage) is tough for some residents to wrap their heads around.
Maybe looking at it from the viewpoint of other organisms would help Oklahoma follow in the footsteps of other states and move forward on this issue. For certain species of microorganisms, Norman’s biosolids (what you flushed down the toilet this morning) are a veritable feast.
Since 1942, Norman’s sewer treatment plant has been located on 25 acres on Jenkins Avenue south of Highway 9. The plant has gone through a variety of name changes, reflecting the evolution of waste treatment through the decades.
Currently, Norman’s sewer plant is a Water Reclamation Facility because the wastewater it cleans is reclaimed for use.
“In earlier decades, they focused on what they were treating,” Utilities Director Ken Komiske said. “They were talking about sewage or pollution. The focus now is on the end product — reclaimed water that is used in the environment, in industry and businesses, and eventually for residential use.”
After treatment, Norman’s reclaimed wastewater is discharged into the Canadian River, which eventually runs to Lake Eufaula, where some of it is consumed by water customers in that area. The rest moves on to Robert S. Kerr Lake and then to the Mississippi River and eventually the Gulf of Mexico.
“Water is a never-ending cycle,” Komiske said. “It just keeps getting used and recycled.”
Raw sewage travels from all over Norman through the city’s sanitary sewer lines to arrive at the plant.
Plant Manager Steven Hardeman said preliminary treatment is where inorganic matter is removed from the sewage. That includes rags or trash that ended up in the system.
Hardeman, along with Superintendent Ryan Bart, described the process through which Norman’s wastewater is cleaned as primarily organic and environmentally friendly.
In primary treatment, the water is separated from biosolids. Biosolids are then treated by anaerobic bacteria, which digests those solids and removes many contaminants.
“Bugs in that particular system eat the pathogens and neutralize the biosolids,” Hardeman said.
Those biosolids are turned into a cake-like product, which is eventually hauled away and spread on farmland as fertilizer. However, the end result resembles coffee grounds more than cake.
Ironically, when there is drought, that product may be too richly concentrated for some fields and then is diluted with water that has been reclaimed and cleaned through the liquid portion of the system.
Once separated from biosolids, the water goes on to secondary treatment, where organisms clean it and remove the pathogens.
Once that’s done, the water goes through four secondary clarifiers: large tanks where the organisms and any remaining solids in the water are removed. The water then moves on to a measuring device, where it is monitored before being discharged into the Canadian River.
It takes about 13 hours for wastewater to go through the system and come out cleaner and more environmentally friendly.
“We do more than just control pollution,” Hardeman said of the process at the plant. “We actually reclaim that water from our usage and put it back into nature better than we found it.”
Staff at the plant maintain an aquarium of fresh water fish using the same effluent that is discharged into the Canadian. The cichlids, tiger barbs, bayla sharks, algae eaters and a small vanilla lobster thrive in the water.
Administrative Tech Danielle Robins will take the fish to Norman’s Earth Day Celebrations from noon to 5 p.m. April 27 at Reaves Park to allow the public to see how well the fish thrive in Norman’s treated wastewater.
Now, a bill is making its way through the Oklahoma House of Representatives that would facilitate reuse of the reclaimed water Norman and other Oklahoma municipalities discharge into a variety of rivers and streams.
Senate Bill 1187, authored by Sen. Rob Standridge, R-Norman, recently passed the senate. Rep. Scott Martin, R-Norman, is the House author. If signed into law, the measure could help facilitate reuse, including discharging a portion of Norman’s treated wastewater into a tributary of Lake Thunderbird to augment lake levels.
Because Thunderbird — Norman’s primary source of drinking water — is much closer to the plant than Lake Eufaula is, the wastewater would be treated to an even higher level before being discharged.
Reuse is not new to Norman. The University of Oklahoma uses reclaimed Norman water to irrigate the golf course, and Norman uses effluent in the treatment plant’s internal system.
“We realized we use a lot of water here,” Hardeman said. “That’s when we began talking about water reuse.”
The closed system at the plant made it easier for the city to get approval from the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality for that application. Other applications for reuse have proven trickier, but new leadership at ODEQ and SB 1187 could facilitate the approval process in the future.
“It’s been assigned to one of our energy committees,” Martin said. “I’m going to be sitting down on Monday with the Central Oklahoma Master Conservancy District to discuss the particulars of the bill.”
Martin also had discussions with the DEQ and the Oklahoma Water Resource Board concerning the bill and furthering the idea of reuse.
“I’m encouraged by the response I’ve had from both agencies,” Martin said.
Since reuse at Norman’s wastewater plant was implemented in 2009, about 700 million gallons of water have been used that didn’t come from Norman’s drinking supply. Currently, about 15 million gallons a month are reclaimed from the system for use at the plant.
“Every drop of water that we reclaim is a drop of water that didn’t come from the water plant,” Hardeman said.
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