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Wetlands will process sewage


New developments at Fernhill Wetlands will offer new means to clean county waste

by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Contractors work on the landscaping of the Japanese Garden at the Forest Grove Wastewater Treatment Facility.At first glance, it seems like a wacky idea. Clean Water Services, the county's sewer agency, is building a man-made waterfall and Japanese garden at its wastewater treatment plant in Forest Grove.

Not only that, but the water flowing through the garden and adjacent wetlands will be treated effluent.

But according to Forest Grove City Commissioner Victoria Lowe, the project actually makes a lot of sense. It is intended to expand the capacity of the Forest Grove Wastewater Treatment Facility by naturally cooling and reconditioning the treated water before it flows into the nearby Tualatin River.

Although the project will cost around $12 million, increasing the capacity of the Forest Grove plant would cost the county a lot more.

"Natural treatment will be a lower-cost solution than building more infrastructure," says Lowe, the council's representative to a pair of key regional water-related boards. "It will also be more environmentally sensitive because it does not require a lot energy for cooling the water before it is discharged."

And the plant is already located at the 748-acre Fernhill Wetlands, a world-renowned destination for bird waters and nature lovers. Its three large ponds are often called "wetlands" but actually are sewage lagoons that were decommissioned after the plant was built. They attract a wide range of wildlife, including bald eagles and migrating water fowl, including 17 species of shore birds.

The project has widespread community support, including the backing of the Fernhill Wetlands Management Council, the nonprofit organization formed to preserve, enhance and promote the wetlands there. The organization plans to build an interpretive center near where the new wetland is being built.

The first phase of the project will not be complete for another year or more. Although it is a new concept for CWS, natural treatment is being used more and more at other wastewater plants around the world. The closest example is in Silverton, where the city’s treated wastewater flows through the Oregon Gardens before reaching Silver Creek. Thousands of visitors walk through the popular tourist attraction every year without giving a second thought to the water irrigating the many varieties of plants found there.

"There have been no problems with it," says Steve Starner, water quality supervisor for the City of Silverton, which operates the wastewater treatment plant.

Tons of work

On a partly cloudy day in late October, about a dozen workers installed an irrigation system and stuck young plants in the ground wetlands lbeing built just east of the Forest Grove Wastewater Treatment Facility, located at 1345 Fern Hill Road. Early fall rains had turned the ground to mud, requiring tall rubber boots to move around.

Much work had already been accomplished over the summer, however. Approximately three acres had been graded to simulate a natural wetlands, complete with channels where the water will snake through plants. Around 1,000 tons of boulders had been trucked in, the largest weighing around seven tons. About 500 trees and tens of thousands of native plants had been planted. And two arched wooden foot bridges had been installed at the transition between the new and existing wetlands.

"You can really get an idea how the wetlands is going to work now," project manager John Drummer said as waves of geese flew overhead. "When we started, most of it was just asphalt."

The Japanese Garden portion of the project was designed by internationally acclaimed landscape garden designer Hoichi Kurisu. President and principle designer of the Portland-based Kurisu International design firm, he has received numerous awards around the world for his meditative gardens, including one at the Samaritan Lebanon Community Hospital, in Lebanon, Oregon, which was the winner of a 2006 "Healthcare Environment Award for Landscape Design."

Although the garden is intended to serve as a peaceful respite for visitors, it has a practical side, too. The plants will help cool and add important nutrients to the treated wastewater. And the waterfall recreated by some of the boulders will add oxygen into the water.

The goal is to allow the Forest Grove Wastewater Treatment Facility to be used year-round. Currently, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality allows it to be used only in rainy months when the Tualatin River is at its highest levels. That is because the two-stage treatment process at the plant does not meet DEQ standards for low-water conditions. Adding the natural treatment process should allow the water to meet DEQ standards at all times. That is what is happening in Silverton, which has a similar treatment plant.

According to CWS officials, the project is largely driven by population and business growth in the Forest Grove and Hillsboro areas, including the high tech companies that use a lot of water in their manufacturing processes.

Balancing mankind and nature

According to Lowe, CWS had originally considered replacing the three decommissioned sewage lagoons with the treatment wetlands. This makes some sense. The lagoons, located between the plant and the river, are not natural. They were dug out of the ground and lined with heavy vinyl many decades ago.

But as Lowe sees it, since they were decommissioned, the man-made lagoons have struck a balance with nature. They repeatedly fill up with rainwater and floodwaters from the river, becoming large ponds that attract wildlife. The banks between them form natural trails that allow visitors to walk to otherwise inaccessible viewing locations. Replacing them would require heavy equipment that would drive the wildlife away and destroy the trails.

"The community wouldn’t have stood for it," says Lowe.

When Forest Grove sold the property to CWS several years ago, Lowe inserted language in the contract that required the former lagoons and trail to remain. In response, CWS officials eventually decided to build the new wetlands on the uplands overlooking them. Lowe calls the decision a brilliant solution that secured the support of the wetlands council and other advocates for the area.

"Balancing what man needs and what nature demands is the challenge for that property," says Lowe.

Treated wastewater could start flowing through the new wetlands in December. It will originally be piped in from the Rock Creek Advanced Wastewater Treatment Facility operated by CWS in Hillsboro. That plant uses a three-stage treatment program and its treated can be discharged into the Tualatin River year-round. Water from the Forest Grove plant is sent there when it is prohibited from operating.

Plans call for the water to be switched to the Forest Grove plant once the vegetation is firmly established in the new wetlands, which could take over a year. In the meantime, construction continues on the Japanese Garden, which should open to the public in early 2013.