As Molalla city officials confront the city's exponential population growth, officials say the city's wastewater system is a top-level priority, not only for citizens' safety, but their wallets.
The city is in the process of constructing a new "mechanical" treatment plant, which City Manager Dan Huff said is slated to be finished by October 2025.
The city currently utilizes a "lagoon system" for its wastewater treatment process, which means pond-like basins receive, hold, and treat wastewater for part of the year.
"We treat it and clean it and then in the wintertime, we send it to the Molalla River, and in the summertime we irrigate it," said City Manager Dan Huff.
Huff said that while a lagoon system is a more natural way to treat wastewater, the city -- now creeping towards a population of more than 10,000 — is outgrowing the system's ability to effectively treat its wastewater. The old system also isn't equipped to meet ever-changing federal and state regulatory requirements, nor can it contend with the reality of climate change, as flooding and droughts become more and more unpredictable and difficult to manage, he added.
The new system will be what is called a sequencing batch reactor (SBR). This system adds wastewater to a single "batch" reactor, treats it, removes waste and other undesirable components, and eventually discharges the clean water for use and consumption.
"We're building growth into it," Huff said. "So as the city grows, we can add components to the treatment process. We're also going to use the existing lagoons that we have for storage."
The project, while initially projected to cost around $30 million, is now — due to project delays, inflation and supply chain pitfalls — slated to cost around $40 million, a burden that partly falls on customers.
"It's the difference between paying $60 a month for wastewater services and $95," he said.
While wastewater rates have already increased in recent years, Huff said one of the city's main concerns is making sure the community is not priced out of the new system.
"We have this graduated system where every year we do an increase, but we're hoping we can stop that because we don't want to go that high," he said.
In the meantime, Huff said city staff is sending out grant applications and other requests to state officials to advocate for directing federal funding packages over to Molalla.
"If the city is able to find a chunk of money towards the construction plan, that will absolutely reduce the amount of money that a homeowner or a renter has to pay for their sewer service," Huff said. "That's really what we're focused on."
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