The shape of water
When something goes down a drain connected to Troutdale's public sewer system, it winds up at the city's wastewater plant. And that means anything.
"You'll see toys, and anything anybody can shove down a drain," said Shawn Anderson, the wastewater plant's chief operator. "So you never know what you're going to get in there."
The first step of treating wastewater is sorting out those abnormalities, Anderson explained on Friday, June 15, while leading a tour of the plant on Northwest Graham Road, northeast of Troutdale Airport along the Sandy River.
A sorting machine rejects any item larger than a quarter of an inch, along with any inorganic material. The unsuitable materials are washed, compacted, placed in a Dumpster and hauled to a landfill.
"It's mostly paper, and anything that's big," Anderson said. "So coffee grounds, corn and rocks all get processed right here. We get it out of the system."
This first stage is when the plant is at its most pungent.
"Honestly, you get used to it," Anderson said of the odor. "That's what everybody says. Then once you're here long enough, you don't even think about it."
Following the initial screening, the rest of the material goes through a multi-step process in which solid waste is separated from water and the waste is converted into biosolids used as fertilizer on non food-bearing agricultural fields.
"Most of ours is going onto hayfields," Anderson said. "The farmers actually love it. It saves them a bunch of money on fertilizer costs, and it works really well."
Constructed in 2000, the wastewater plant is a chemical-free operation, and microorganisms are used for the fertilizer conversion. The remaining water is disinfected by ultraviolet light before it's pumped into the Sandy River. Prior to chemical-free operations, wastewater treatment plants used chlorine as a disinfectant.
Laboratory tests are performed each week to verify quality of effluent going into the Sandy River, and McIntire said there are no health concerns associated with swimming downstream of the plant's outflow.
"The water being discharged meets all permit limits set by the state of Oregon as well as the Environmental Protection Agency," said Greg McIntire, Troutdale's wastewater services superintendent.
From the source
On average, the plant processes about 1.4 million gallons of wastewater per day, and the city of Troutdale provides a similar amount — about 1.6 million gallons — of potable water each day.
The city gets its water from seven wells connected to the Sand & Gravel Aquifer and the Troutdale Sandstone Aquifer, noted David Schaffer, Troutdale Public Works superintendent. Aquifers are porous, underground rock beds that naturally store water.
Because of the purity of the aquifer sources, city staff uses a minimal approach to treat its water.
"Groundwater has a few different traits than surface water in the sense that it has less susceptibility to bacterial contamination," Schaffer explained. "When it comes from deep down in the ground, it's being filtered all the way before it gets to the aquifer. Our treatment basically consists of just adding a small amount of sodium hypochlorite that we add for taste and odor reasons."
Schaffer keeps a small display of water-related items near his desk such as rusted water pipes, a water pressure gauge and broken water mains. The pipes are the most-recent additions to his desktop exhibit.
The pipes, which had worn out over time, illustrate why Troutdale's water rates increased by 14 percent last year. One reason for the increase was to help pay to maintain and replace the water system's aging infrastructure.
In the event of a severe water shortage, Troutdale could pull water from the city of Gresham's system by opening a shared water connection, Schaffer said, adding that Troutdale hasn't had to do that for more than 30 years.
Troutdale also has shared connections with Wood Village and Fairview.
"But if we're in a situation with our groundwater and aquifers, it's likely that they (Wood Village and Fairview) are going to be in a similar situation," he said.
The city of Gresham gets its water from the Bull Run Watershed in the Mt. Hood National Forest, while Fairview and Wood Village obtain water from the same sources as Troutdale.
Water shortages are rare in Troutdale because Public Works Department employees monitor water levels and control the seven wells using a computer program.
"So if one of the wells is clogging or has a low level in the aquifer, we have shutdown protections for the well, so it protects the equipment, but then we can throttle that well back so it's flowing less water, therefore allowing more water to fill in the aquifer, or to maintain a given level in the aquifer," Schaffer explained.
Not a bad job
Schaffer started as a laborer and worked his way up to the Public Works Department top spot.
"I had a lot of interest in the stuff that the water crew was doing, so I worked myself through the ranks and became certified," Schaffer said.
On the wastewater side, Anderson had a similar story. About 20 years ago, he was working in the electrical field, and that career path wasn't working well.
Anderson heard from his friends that wastewater processing was a viable career path for someone with his background.
"I thought, 'You know that probably would be a decent job.' So I came here and I did enjoy it," he said. "I like the people I work with. It's a variety of things: One day I might be working on the barge, and one day I might be driving a truck. It's just the variety. You're not always stuck doing the same thing."
Despite working in a facility that literally processes human waste, Anderson claimed it's not really a dirty job.
"It can be at times, if you have to go into a manhole or a pump station or something, which is pretty rare, but it's not a dirty as people think."
Troutdale's water department treats, stores and distributes an average of 1.6 million gallons of water per day. Water comes from six wells 485- to 615-feet deep and stored in reservoirs that hold up to 6 million gallons.
The city of Fairview provides, on average, 562,000 gallons of water each day, provided from three deep groundwater wells in the city. The wells can produce up to 4 million gallons a day.
Wood Village's water supply is a well field that draws groundwater to distribute to residents.
Fairview and Wood Village contract with the city of Gresham for its wastewater treatment facility.