(This guest article is provided by Clifton Town Manager Ian McGaughey.)
There are few things less glamorous than municipal sewer systems. But when you stop to think about it, there are really few things in municipal operations that are so important.
I think it’s safe to say that when we wash the dishes or flush the toilet, we all assume the sewer system is going to do its part and take our wastewater away. Far away. Out of sight, out of mind.
But in the past few years, the uncomfortable reality that Clifton’s wastewater treatment plant and collections system (essentially the pipes and lift stations) are reaching a tipping point of deterioration.
The treatment plant was built in 1954. That’s when Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio married Marilyn Monroe. It’s when “Rock Around The Clock” was at the top of the charts. That’s a long time ago.
Think of all the sewage that has gone through that plant in that 64 years. On second thought, don’t do that.
And in many cases, our pipes and sewers are even older than that. In many cases, we don’t even know where the manholes and pipes are, as they’re buried under decades of pavement.
Unfortunately, with increasing frequency, these old pipes are letting us know exactly where they are as they burst, become blocked, or get ruptured by tree roots or other protrusions.
The costs to operate this antiquated sewer system have been going up and up as the facilities continue to age. When something breaks in the system, it needs to be fixed immediately to keep overflows and spills at bay.
But finding parts for a 64-year-old plant are nearly impossible to find and often have to be custom fabricated.
Meanwhile, many of our recent collection system failures have required around-the-clock attention from our already stretched public works crew.
These guys literally have had to manually pump out sewage holding tanks at failed lift stations to truck over to the treatment plant though the night to keep our toilets flushing, and to keep raw sewage from overflowing into the river. It’s pretty heroic work if you ask me.
The good news is that your Town Council has already begun taking big steps to address this issue, naming it Clifton’s top priority. It has addressed the disparity between the cost to operate the system and the revenue collected from users.
It has pursued grants that have funded major engineering work toward system upgrades and replacements. It is diligently pursuing options to replace the plant, upgrade the lift stations and reline the pipes.
The Council knows that making improvements to the system is vital for a healthy and safe, economically-viable community. Economic Development is very closely tied to the strength of a community’s infrastructure.
The economic impact of ensuring the continuous operation of this critical community infrastructure cannot be overstated. Even a temporary disruption in functioning sewer service would be catastrophic for the area.
We cannot afford to continue to patch problems while keeping our fingers crossed against a disaster. As this system continues to age and deteriorate, costs for such repairs will only increase. An engineer with 35 years of wastewater experience recently toured our facilities and said “You’re sitting on a time bomb there.”
This is an expensive problem that will likely have an expensive solution. The town is actively pursuing grant funding that could bring millions of dollars in federal aid to Clifton for these upgrades.
There is much work still to do, but your Clifton Town Council and town staff are dedicated to addressing this situation. We all have the same goal: to keep everything flowing. You can rest assured that we are committed to reaching that goal.