Chautauqua votes on bond for sewer plant update

Chautauqua property owners will go to the polls this afternoon to determine the fate of a proposed 30-year bond issue to support a renewed sewer plant for the Chautauqua Utility District.

Constituents will be able to cast their ballots from noon to 4 p.m. today in the lobby of the Colonnade. A favorable vote will impose an average annual property tax increase of around $400 on each Chautauqua household for the next 30 years to secure project funding, which will be borrowed on the bond markets.

The $8 million proposal has been discussed extensively during the 2013 and 2014 summer seasons on the grounds. It has been the central focus of the three major public meetings of the Chautauqua Property Owners Association this year, including the session held Saturday morning in the Hall of Christ. The CPOA Board of Directors is in support of the project.

The $8 million price tag for the sewer plant upgrade remains an estimate, since final New York state approval is still pending for the engineering drawings overwhelmingly authorized by voters one year ago.

“We are quite optimistic that the state will grant approval for our plans,” said CUD supervisor Tom Cherry. “It’s a complex governmental process. The main actor is the Department of Environmental Conservation, which is essentially the state version of the federal EPA. DEC has had our plans for a while now, and we’re working very closely with them. I doubt they will have serious misgivings. But there are other issues to deal with also, including ensuring that no historic artifacts are disturbed.”

Kreable Young | Staff Photographer
The secondary treatment process is seen at the wastewater treatment facility for the Chautauqua Utility District.

Since Chautauqua is a designated national historic site, CUD would face “the same oversight considerations” as any capital construction project on the grounds, Cherry said.

He also stressed that today’s vote authorizes only the $8 million on the ballot.

“We cannot exceed that amount without further reference to the voters,” he said. “We chose that figure because we are confident that project bids will come in under that ceiling.”

CUD needs to meet a June 2018 federal mandate to reduce phosphorous and ammonia in local sewer plant’s effluent, which flows into Chautauqua Lake. Failure to do so could trigger state fines.

“It is certainly true that we do feel an obligation to meet the federal deadlines. But there is another important issue here,” Cherry said. “The equipment we will need to replace has a 30-year life expectancy. We have carefully maintained our equipment, but we’re now into the 37th year of operation with these machines. The federal mandate has simply imposed a deadline on actions that any prudent manager would be taking anyhow.”

The Institution is not the only entity whose sewer system dumps into Chautauqua Lake. Many Chautauquans have raised questions about plans by other localities to meet the federal mandate.

“It’s certainly fair to say that cleaning up the effluent from the Mayville and Lakewood sewer plants will not proceed at the same pace as our efforts,” Cherry said. “But I hope most Chautauquans agree with me that we should proceed and do our part.”

State DEC figures show that during the summer season, Chautauqua’s sewer plant puts more phosphorus into Chautauqua Lake than the Mayville and other north lake basin plants combined.

Recently, blue-green algae blooms have caused Toledo, Ohio’s water plant to shut down for several days. The story made The New York Times and national television news. Something similar could happen in Chautauqua Lake, Cherry said.

“The algae blooms in western Lake Erie are indeed similar to the infestation we have faced on Chautauqua Lake in recent years,” he said. “Reducing our phosphorus and ammonia input into the lake will remove a source of nutrients for the algae.”

Cherry emphasized that there is “absolutely no cause for concern for our drinking water in Chautauqua.”

“In fact, we have very recently sent drinking water samples from our taps and lake water samples to the New York state labs,” he said. “They advised us just last Friday that they have found no traces of harmful algae in Chautauqua’s drinking water.”

Kreable Young | Staff Photographer
The odor control system, or chemical scrubber. It neutralizes the odors that the wastewater treatment process produces.

Blue-green algae blooms have, however, caused the Institution to close its public beaches in August in recent years. Last week, Chautauqua’s beaches were again closed.

If voters approve the proposed bond issue today, the following process “will be lengthy and probably complicated by several factors,” Cherry said.

“First, we need to get DEC’s final stamp of approval, via something called a state environmental quality review process,” he said. “That will probably take two, three months to get fully vetted and approved. Then — assuming voters authorize the $8 million bond issue — we will advertise for bids on the job. I estimate that the bidding process will take three to four months to complete. So we’re now in March 2015. Some site preparation work could be accomplished prior to next summer’s season.”

Cherry said he expected most demolition and construction work would be suspended during the 2015 season.

“At times, there will be dust and trucks coming in and out of the Bryant Gate,” he said. “We don’t want that going on during the Chautauqua season.”

Cherry anticipates only minor off-season service interruptions as the project proceeds.

The new equipment for the sewer plant will be large, specialized and complex.

“Lead times on ordering the machines are exceedingly long, and there is a complicated installation and testing process,” Cherry said.

The plan is to use existing building infrastructure, with only relatively minor new construction required.

“Our cinderblock buildings are constructed in such a way that we can take out one end wall under the load bearing steel I-beams, remove the outdated equipment and install the replacements without disturbing the rest of the structure,” Cherry said.

Among the major pieces of equipment to be upgraded is the odor control system.

“We expect to be able to improve an already efficient system in that regard,” Cherry said. “We should have the whole project completed prior to the 2017 season. There are always unexpected delays in a project of this size and complexity, but I think that’s a safe, conservative estimate.”