Overall, the reeds are one cog in a treatment system that processes between 600,000 gallons to 1.1 million gallons of wastewater per day – depending on whether SUNY New Paltz’s school year is in full swing or not, The system also includes huge skimming pools, a grit chamber, clarifiers, digesters, the belt press and an end-run chlorination maze that disinfects clean water ready to leave the plant.
Despite the hoopla surrounding the opening of the bed in 2004 during mayor Jason West’s first term, the tall green plants remain generally unacknowledged by the villagers benefiting from their existence. At least until it comes to Election Day.
In both 2007 and again this year, some opponents to West’s leadership, including former mayor Terry Dungan, have dismissed the reed bed as a whimsical, underperforming relic of the Green Party’s first taste of power in New Paltz.
Is that accurate? How are the reeds doing in terms of processing sewer sludge?
After the village board voted to install the $12,000 reed bed in mid-June 2004, those plants needed some time to establish themselves and grow. The first year on record that the reeds treated anything was in 2005, a year later.
Here is what the reeds have done since they went in:
In 2005, the sewer system produces 227.7 metric tons of sludge total. The belt press treated 211.2 tons and the reeds processed 16.5 tons.
In 2006, the system produced 202.8 tons of sludge. The belt press dried 143.1 tons of that and the reeds did 59.7 tons that year. Reeds processed just under 30 percent of sludge.
In 2007, the system produced 156.8 tons of sludge. The belt press worked 149.3 tons of that, and the reeds processed 7.5 tons. The percentage of waste treated by those reeds fell that year to just under five percent of the total.
In 2008, the system produced 167.8 tons. The belt press worked 162.55 tons, and the reeds processed 5.25 tons. The percentage also dropped again. The reeds treated only about three percent of the sludge.
In 2009, the system produced 215.4 tons of sludge. The belt press dried out 201.8 tons and the reeds broke down 13.6 tons. The reeds dealt with about six percent of the sludge.
Finally, in 2010 the system produced 297 tons of sludge. The belt press dried out 279 tons last year, and the reeds treated 18 tons of waste. The reeds treated six percent of the sludge.
A living treatment method
In general, reeds treat waste better once they’re in full bloom in late spring. However, records from the New Paltz plant shows that the reeds were fertilized with sludge as early as February in both 2008 and 2009.
Outside of that record-setting, statistically outlying year in 2006, last year represents the most tons treated by the reeds since 2005.
While Gardiner and Highland use reed beds to treat waste, they use them to treat liquid waste and not solids like New Paltz. The one reed bed in the village is technically fertilized by sludge, the byproduct that’s left over from raw human feces, but the plants drink water and photosynthesize sugars to keep them alive.
Like any good fertilizer, too much sludge can have devastating and poisonous effects on the plants. Ammonia from the night soil can build up and stress or kill the reeds if sewer plant workers aren’t careful.
Back in November 2003, the village received an official grant funding rejection by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. NYSERDA was not impressed by what the village wanted to do with reeds at the sewer plant.
“The selection process at NYSERDA is quite competitive and rigorous,” the agency wrote in its rejection letter to mayor West. “Although your proposal was not selected for the award under this program opportunity notice, NYSERDA appreciated receiving your proposal.” The letter went on to encourage village officials to apply for grant money again.
In June 2004 the village board had gone out for bids to get a design for on reed bed at the sewer plant. West and board members Julia Walsh, Robert Hebel, Michael Zierler and Rebecca Rotzler voted unanimously to approve putting in a reed bed. Putting in the plants didn’t seem to be too controversial.
Former trustee Zierler did not remember whether the meeting was contentious, but he did not seem to think it was..“It was a project that Jason was interested in. I certainly was supportive,” Zierler said.
The beds seemed to help with a waste management problem. “You don’t have to pay to haul this sludge away,” the former village trustee said. “You’re converting a problematic waste product into soil.”
It took a while for them to grow
West held a press conference at the sewer plant to show off the new green technology. At that time the village board had hopes to convert the rest of the old sand sludge-drying beds into reed beds as well, treating even more of the waste and cutting down on costs. But first, the members wanted to make sure it worked as advertised.
“So we did a first planting,” mayor West said. “It took a while for them to grow.”
Much of the cost and savings projections at the time were based on the idea that one reed bed would process 30 percent of the solids per year, leaving the other 70 percent to the belt press. If the village expanded and plunked down another $12,000 or so for more reeds, that percentage was expected to grow.
As it stands currently, the village still has just a single 4000-square-foot bed. The other two drying beds – which are essentially giant sandboxes under big greenhouse type roofs – remain unconverted.
In 2007 and again last year, the reed bed became a political point of contention. Terry Dungan accused West of having bungled about $40,000 on the project – a calculation that could not be independently verified. A freedom-of-information request did not turn up cost-analysis data. Belt-pressed sludge needs to be carted away to a landfill, and the village has historically paid between $60 to almost $100 per ton to remove it.
The village government periodically signs a new contract for waste removal. Years of neglect in recordkeeping have made tracking the year-to-year changes virtually impossible. The village government is paying more to cart away waste and also saving more because of the reeds.
Dungan is correct in saying that only four to eight percent is actually treated by the reed bed, but that 30 percent treatment of the solid waste had been promised. Based on that 30 percent standard, the village reeds are underperforming.
“They certainly didn’t have the payback that Jason had anticipated,” Zierler said. However, the former board member added that the reeds do still help and that the project was meant to be a long-term one. Anything broken down by biologically represents a savings to the village. “If it cost $12,000 to put it in, that cost is not enormous,” he added. “That certainly doesn’t qualify as a boondoggle to me.”
Part of the reason for the fluctuation in the amount of solids treated by the plants has to do with the fact that they’re, well, alive. Sewer workers have had to come up with methods to treat them, tinkering to find out how much sludge is too much, and finding out when the reeds need watering beyond the natural cycle of rain and dew.
“To some extent, it’s empirical,” Zierler said. “It’s trial and error.”
West echoed that remark. “It’s not like a machine – it’s like a garden,” the mayor said.
West felt like the vision for the reeds had been blocked by politics. “That process wasn’t really allowed to happen.”
Reed beds in other towns
Lloyd had once been the model in the area for a municipal government using reeds to treat sewage, largely due to the influence of the late John Jankiewicz.
“He was a legend,” West said, remembering the manager of the Highland sewer plant. “He spent 15 years trying to prove that they don’t work.” After that skepticism, Jankiewicz became a true believer. He saw what the reeds could do and became their biggest champion locally.
Not only did Highland have the reeds at the sewer plant dehydrating and breaking down that sewer sludge, they also had an artificial wetland built behind the town’s largest manufacturer – the lighting company Zumtobel. The reeds in that wetland treat the liquid wastewater coming from the manufacturing process.
In 2004, before his death, Highland’s sewer superintendent wrote an article for the Poughkeepsie Journal touting the benefits of the green technology. “The reed bed at our facility in Highland accommodates about 20 percent of treatment plant sludge production, and has many years of useful operation left before cleaning will be necessary. It has saved the town approximately $6000 per year and alleviated the need to truck 300 tons of sludge since its construction,” he wrote then.
Since his death and the subsequent shakeup in management at the sewer and water plants in Lloyd, Jankiewicz’s sludge-treating reeds have been torn out. Highland is in the midst of an $8.3-million sewer-plant upgrade. It has ditched the reeds for more conventional sludge treatment methods. Left over from that era, however, are the artificial wetlands at the lighting manufacturing plant.
Gardiner uses a reed-bed setup at their sewer plant, but like Highland it is used to treat waste liquids. Most people in the town use septic tanks.
Back to the reedy future
With Jason West again in the office of mayor, reed beds and green technology are again a priority in New Paltz, Chirs Jaeger, who manages the sewer plant on Huguenot Street, said the reeds planted in the old sand-drying pit will continue to be a part of the treatment center. “I’d like to see them stay healthy and grow,” Jaeger said.
West doesn’t see the reeds as a top priority. Priority one is to repair the syphons on Water Street and “dealing with things like the consent order.” Repairing the syphon would stop raw sewage from bubbling up into the street during heavy rains.
“It’s getting too late in the year to start something new,” the mayor explained.
Last week, the members of the village board took a tour of the sewer plant, looking at the each component of the system and asking questions. When West, Ariana Basco, Stewart Glenn and Sally Rhoads stopped in front of the greenhouse, the mayor couldn’t help but smile.
“They’re finally getting mature. They used to be waist-high,” West said, looking into the greenhouse. Growing in a greenish brown soil made from the sludge, the reeds are roughly as tall as cornstalks.
The reed bed has become a home a much, much different species of flora, including tomato seeds which hadn’t broken down in the human digestive tract. West, who cracked jokes about how the village could make money by opening up a farmstand and selling those bitter fruits.
Deputy mayor Sally Rhoads indicated an interest in expanding the reeds. “Can we take some of the reeds from there, and put it in there?” she asked Jaeger.
Just what direction the village board will take with the reeds remains to be seen.