Sewer plant delays reach seven months

Almost totally obscured by the furor over the Amphitheater project this summer has been another large capital building project authorized a year ago by 95 percent of Chautauqua constituents.

Voters last August approved an $8 million, 30-year bond issue to finance the renewal of Chautauqua Institution’s aging sewer plant on the south end of the grounds. Progress on the project has been slowed by the Buffalo engineering firm Nussbaumer & Clarke Inc., which the Chautauqua Utility District commissioned.

“Basically, Nussbaumer & Clarke experienced major, unexpected delays on a project near Ellicottville, and they could not complete our drawings according to original schedule,” said Tom Cherry, CUD superintendent.

The engineering firm designed Chautauqua’s current sewer plant in 1976 and oversaw extensive renovations to the Institution’s water plant in 2003, Cherry said.

“They are fantastic engineers,” he said. “We have absolute confidence in them.”

Seven-month project delay

As a result of the delays elsewhere, final engineering construction drawings for the sewer plant were just received on the grounds around Aug. 10. This means that a construction bid will likely be awarded by the end of October, instead of March as Cherry anticipated last summer.

Cherry is confident CUD will nonetheless comfortably meet a June 2018 federal deadline to reduce phosphorus and ammonia in the sewer plant’s effluent, which flows into Chautauqua Lake.

CUD and the engineers have already applied for final plan approval from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

“I think our ducks are all in a row,” Cherry said.

He expects expedited approval from DEC, which will permit bid solicitation for the project by the end of September. After a pre-bid conference in October, a final contract should be awarded by the end of that month.

An October contract award would trigger a schedule involving some site work and a moderate amount of dismantling and removal of equipment during this off-season.

“Chautauquans may have heard these words in connection with a different project this summer, but we will also pay particular attention to noise and dust abatement during this limited construction period,” Cherry said.

Trucks and heavy equipment would enter and leave the grounds via the Bryant Gate.

Work on the sewer plant would be suspended during the 2016 season.

“We would then resume the project after next season and complete it prior to the 2017 season,” Cherry said.

Project details

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 — up to six months — 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.

Financial considerations 

Cherry estimated last summer that the average annual Chautauqua tax increase would be $400, assuming prevailing bond rates and the $8 million project price tag. Now, Cherry believes the average tax figure may be lower, because “I expect the overall project cost to come in under $8 million and bond prices haven’t changed too much.”

Regarding another financial issue, Cherry said, “we are scheduled to make the very last payment next month on the serial bonds issued 40 years ago to finance the present sewer plant.”

So the financing for the old plant will expire just as the financing for the new plant comes into view.

Lake health

Cherry and CUD’s sewer plant project dominated the Chautauqua Property Owners Association’s three large public meetings last summer. There were questions then about the federal clean water deadlines and efforts by Chautauqua Lake’s other sewer districts to match Chautauqua’s pace on sewer plant effluent cleanup.

“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 38th 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 flows into Chautauqua Lake.

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

Chautauqua County Executive Vince Horrigan announced earlier this summer a $60 million effort to extend sewer service to areas on both sides of Chautauqua Lake which are still served by individual septic systems. There was no timetable revealed for finding such a large sum. Nor has any schedule been announced for installing updated pollution control equipment in the lake’s other sewer plants.

Still, there is evidence that CUD’s sewer plant project will significantly aid the health of Chautauqua Lake. State figures show that during the summer season, Chautauqua’s sewer plant puts more phosphorus into Chautauqua Lake than the Mayville and other north basin plants combined.