Hilsdale’s Non-Traditional Wastewater Solution

Candace Balmer, Community Development Specialist, RCAP Solutions

Hilsdale, NY Town Supervisor Art Baer

Art Baer simply wasn’t going to take no for an answer.  After all, anyone who played ball in the park behind the Town Hall knew that, when retrieving a foul ball, tread carefully and pray the ball had landed on dry ground.   For many years, the odor that wafted through the small downtown hamlet of Hillsdale, NY was familiar like a smelly old friend: the unpleasantness was the standard back drop to an otherwise enjoyable experience.

As a newly elected Town Supervisor, Art Baer knew that he intended to solve this problem that plagued his picturesque community.  And although the problem was by no means news, proposed community-wide wastewater solutions had been voted down more than once in past years by locals who took pride in their self-sufficiency.  But something had to be done.

The Supervisor knew that, at the end of the day, it was mostly about money.   So together, with a newly-invigorated ad hoc wastewater committee, led by Town Councilman Augie Sena, Art and the Town set about researching affordable community wastewater alternatives and how they might be able to pay for it.

The Town was fortunate in their choice of engineer, Clark Engineering, owned by Mary and Doug Clark of New Lebanon, NY.  The Clarks understood that small-community wastewater needs such as Hillsdale’s, allowed for a flexible approach and, ultimately, a non-traditional solution.

Small-Diameter Collection

The collection system is non-traditional in that it is not the standard gravity-fed piping network.  In a gravity collection system, to obtain enough pitch to keep wastewater flowing downhill by gravity to a central treatment plant, the pipes end up being buried pretty deep.  In contrast, a small-diameter collection system does not transport solids: only the separated liquid waste is moving through the pipe network, allowing the collection pipes to be shallower and to follow the contours of the land.

The solids are separated first in standard septic tanks located on individual properties.  Even in this, the Hillsdale system was creatively designed.  Because of the small lot sizes and the need to replace aging and sub-standard septic tanks, the new tanks are in several instances shared by two or more properties.

Packed-Bed Filter Treatment

Hillsdale Wastewater Plant, Hillsdale, NY

The treatment system itself is also non-conventional.  Eight packed-bed filters are installed flush with the ground surface, occupying less than 1 acre of land.  Each filter essentially consists of a large fiberglass box containing about 20 man-made sheets over which wastewater is distributed.  The innovation represented by these sheets is their surface area – they provide 5 times more surface area than the sand in a typical recirculating sand filter.  This means lots more space for micro-organisms to live and do the work of breaking down the wastes in the wastewater.

The non-woven textile sheets also have a much greater void space and water-holding capacity than sand, so wastewater loading rates can be increased much more.  Years of independent testing has reliably demonstrated loading rates 12 times higher than the loading rate for a recirculating sand filter: 60 gallons per day per square foot versus 5 gallons per day per square foot.  This is why the treatment system requires so little land.

Two large collection tanks at the head of the system serve as equalization basins, that is, they collect and store the wastewater so it can be steadily applied over time, instead of being subject to the peaks and valleys of home water use over the course of a day.   The boxes are uniformly dosed with wastewater.  Wastewater is distributed over the filter media via a series of spray nozzles on a timed schedule.

Low Profile

The entire facility, including a storage shed and sub-surface disposal in large leach fields, fits on less than 3 acres.  Siting a treatment plant can be the most challenging element of a new wastewater project.  The compact design and low visibility can be a real advantage for communities with challenging site constraints.

Municipal Commitment

Admittedly, there were bumps in the road.  The town had determined to supply new septic tanks as part of the overall collection system and had secured a Community Development Block Grant to help pay for the tanks of eligible homeowners.  Little did Art and Augie suspect, when they applied for the grant, that they would find themselves walking up and down the streets of the hamlet with a printer and a 250-foot extension cord in a supermarket shopping cart collecting the required paperwork from individual homeowners who had not yet come forward with their documentation.  They even brought a translator along to ensure they had successfully reached all homeowners.

In fact, the Town went out on a very big limb.  They had discovered that they were going to need help from more than one funding source to get this project off the ground.  Their two best sources for low-interest loans and grants were USDA Rural Development and the Clean Water State Revolving Loan Fund (CWSRF).  However, the project priority ranking system that was used for CWSRF monies was heavily weighted toward upgrading existing facilities.  New systems simply did not score very high.  If, however, the Town were under a Consent Order from NYS DEC to solve their wastewater pollution problem, they could get a high enough score to boost their project above the funding line.  The Supervisor requested DEC to put the Town under Consent. This effectively required them to solve their wastewater problem within two years or face enforcement action and penalties.

Ultimately the project was funded through a combination of CWSRF zero-interest loan, USDA RD grant and low-interest loan, a Community Development Block Grant, a grant from the private Rheinstrom Foundation, and town and other local contributions.  Other partners that helped make the project go were the Columbia County Housing Authority who wrote the CDBG application, and RCAP Solutions who helped the town investigate and document funding eligibility.

Affordability is Key

Initially the project was estimated to cost about $1.8 million.  When bids came in over $2.4 million, the town scrambled to obtain more money from their funding partners.  They were successful and ultimately, they were able to keep user costs down to their target cost of $45 per month, per household.

The system has been operating since 2008.  At an educational gathering and tour of the system, organized by RCAP Solutions on behalf of municipal officials, Wastewater Operator Shad Pulver, spoke of his experiences operating the system: “Honestly, the most challenging part has been wrestling with the lock on the gate.”