Animals return as wastewater treatment system recovers

Animals return as wastewater treatment system recovers

After years of polluted runoff into an aging — and some would say outdated — waste water treatment system, the City of Beaumont has successfully navigated a 4.5-year extension with the TCEQ and is well on its way to complying with water quality standards at one of the city’s last stages of water treatment — Cattail Marsh.

Since it was built in 1990 at a cost of more than $10 million, Cattail Marsh has been in and out of trouble with the TCEQ. Since that time, the manmade marsh has done its best to aerate Beaumont’s water and helped scrub storm runoff and city waste water of harmful substances such as ammonia and other pollutants using natural plant life.

According to the TCEQ, the problems with Beaumont’s Cattail Marsh began shortly after it was built in the ’90s. There have been numerous infractions regarding unauthorized discharges into adjacent state waters from the time it was built until at least 2012, according to a TCEQ compliance history report obtained by The Examiner. And because Cattail Marsh feeds a natural marsh and then Hildebrandt Bayou, the EPA has labeled the waterway as “impaired” due to high levels of dissolved oxygen and bacteria from wastewater runoff, according to its website.

From Hildebrandt Bayou the treated water flows into the Neches River downstream from where the city of Beaumont draws its drinking water.

To help fix the problem of pollutants entering these waterways, in 2007 the city spent about $12 million to completely rehabilitate the polluted marsh and has since approved a new bar screen filtering system at its council meeting June 4. This brings the total spent on the marsh to about $26.5 million since 1990.

The problem, according to TCEQ spokeswoman Andrea Morrow, is that Beaumont’s Cattail Marsh isn’t easily altered to affect needed changes in water quality.

“Wetlands rely on natural biota, plants and natural algae and bacteria, to treat the wastewater,” she said in an e-mail. “These processes cannot be quickly influenced by operational changes, and can be affected by the time of year and temperatures, and the health of the plants in the system.”

Alternative to Man-Made Wetlands

Morrow said most large cities use much more manageable “activated sludge treatment plants” that give cities “more operational control over the process since it is a mechanical system, which allows for operational changes to be made quickly by the operators to ensure that the wastewater is properly treated.”

The only problem? This system is costly — as much as $80 million for a new activated sludge plant.

To avoid this cost, Water Utilities Director Hani Tohme said the city built Cattail Marsh.

“The choice was made at the time to go ahead and do the wetlands because it was cheaper and an environmentally friendly project,” Tohme said.

Years later, the marsh’s $12 million infusion in 2007 completely revamped each of the eight cells within the marsh. These cells were dredged and their topsoils replaced to allow for a better control of flow into and out of the system.

“On average and in general approximately, every 20 years you go through your wetland system and rehab them,” Tohme said. “And that’s what we started five years ago.”

The cells were then replanted with naturally occurring plants, such as bullrush, which carries much-needed oxygen into the system’s roots.

“Bullrush is the main workhorse, but in nature you don’t want to have a monoculture,” said the city’s water quality control manager, Karen Warren, who is also a biologist. “You can’t have only one species. For that reason, we have several different species there in the wetlands.”

Other species of plant that contribute to the wetland’s natural filtration are arrowhead and primrose, along with flowering plants that help dissolve phosphorous and other chemicals, Warren said.

“We’re trying to do a nice diverse culture of plants,” she said.

In order to further rehabilitate the marsh, Water Utilities Director Hani Tohme said the city applied for and received an out-of-the-ordinary four and a half-year extension to complete its rehabilitation.

“Getting the first three years was just amazing,” Tohme said of the TCEQ’s decision. “Nobody could believe we got an extension that long. But they understand what we do.”

According to the TCEQ, Beaumont received another 1.5-year extension, which will expire June 30, 2013.

Tohme and other water utility officials said part of the reason regulators deem the waterway impaired is the TCEQ is using old data from the Hildebrandt Bayou to determine the effectiveness of Beaumont’s Cattail Marsh in cleansing the area’s water.

The city has also applied for a seven ppm cap on ammonia, instead of the current three to six ppm cap based on seasonal and temperature changes.

“They’re not concerned about the seven ppm as much as they are about the loading that goes there, which is the flow and concentration going to it,” Warren said. “We believe that once they really take a look at the numbers, if they already haven’t — the state hasn’t even evaluated those numbers yet, the new numbers — they’re going to see that it has greatly improved.”

As far as loading goes, according to the council agenda, when Beaumont receives up to two and a half inches of rain, Beaumont’s Waste Treatment Plant receives up to 170 million gallons per day. This is much more than the 46 million per day the city’s plant is designed to clean. To remedy this problem, City Council members approved another change order Tuesday, June 18, to its March 20, 2012 project of turning a portion of the plant into a 70 million gallon storage tank in case of heavy rains, which could still overwhelm the system.

A New Marsh

Due to the improving water quality since the 2007 rehabilitation, the bird and animal life at Cattail Marsh has exploded, prompting an influx of avid bird watchers, bikers and runners in the area.

Those who visit the area are in for a surprise. Alligators and rare birds frequent the area, especially as summer months bring different species of birds from across the globe.

“We’re going to start exploding the wetlands in terms of putting it out there as a tourist attraction,” Tohme said. “Bird watching is a billion-dollar industry. We’ve seen people at the wetlands from Canada, from England, from Europe just to come here because there’s some kind of bird species they can check off their list.”

Indeed, upon taking a visit to the wetlands, numerous rare birds were sighted. The wetlands even boast a bald eagle couple with at least three eaglets, their nest perched precariously in the highest pine tree in the wetlands.

“It’s the type of industry where the people in it are usually retired, older, well established financially and they can afford to come and stay in Beaumont two or three days,” Tohme said of birdwatchers.

Tohme said he also plans to use oil royalty money from the municipal airport to build an educational center near the wetlands to accommodate tens of thousands of BISD students every year who aren’t able to see the at-capacity Shangri La Botanical Gardens. The push for marketing the marsh will also include billboards on Interstate 10, Tohme said.

As she cruised through the marsh Wednesday, June 5, Warren said after 20 years working for the city, she’s seen the dramatic transition the wetlands have made.

Plant and animal life is now abundant at the marsh and the smell of fresh water and flowering plants permeates the air. 

“It’s almost as if the animals were waiting for us to finish so they could come back,” Warren said.

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