What’s Behind the Wastewater Part of Your KUB Bill?

In Small Planet by Patrice Coleleave a COMMENT

If you were limited to only one of the utilities provided by KUB, which one would you choose? Most people would probably choose electricity. After all, everyone knows what it’s like when the power goes off. We have much less experience with interruptions in other utilities, with the unintended consequence that we take those utilities for granted and lose sight of their true worth.

What if water stopped flowing to the various faucets and toilets in your home or business? You could bring in bottled water for drinking, cooking, and limited washing, but you’d still have the problem of getting rid of the wastewater that’s left after the cooking and washing is done. Even more problematic is what goes in the toilet. Living under those conditions might make water, and wastewater disposal, look like more of a necessity than electricity.

So what are we actually paying for in the wastewater part of our bill? A big part of the answer is the initial step in wastewater treatment and disposal, namely the collection system. Beneath our feet are 1,300 miles of pipes that carry wastewater from buildings to the treatment plants. Some are as much as 75 years old. Over time, these pipes can corrode, break, and develop leaks. A certain amount of wastewater might escape into the ground, but of greater concern is the amount of rainwater that leaks into the sewer, especially when the ground is saturated. Wet weather can add more water to the sewer than it can handle, causing overflows at manholes and overwhelming the treatment plant. To avoid flooding the treatment plants, sewage has sometimes been diverted around much of the treatment processes before going into the Tennessee River. This used to happen more often than it does now, because in 2005 KUB reached an agreement with the EPA, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, the city of Knoxville, and the Tennessee Clean Water Network to spend $530 million over 10 years on improvements to the sewer system. That amount was eventually increased to $650 million and the time frame increased by five years.

According to KUB’s most recent report on the agreement, 275 miles of pipe and almost 7,000 manholes have been replaced or repaired and six huge storage tanks installed to temporarily hold up to 30 million gallons of wastewater during peak flows. These and other measures have reduced the frequency of wet weather overflows by 96 percent.

Aside from these necessary investments in our aging infrastructure, we also pay for regular cleaning and maintenance of the collection system to keep everything flowing in the right direction. Every time KUB has to remove a clog from pipes or pump stations it costs us money, so a simple but important way we can keep costs down is to be mindful of what we put down any drain. Toilets are not trash cans, and nothing should be flushed except human waste and toilet paper. Even products like wet wipes and facial tissue that might claim to be flushable will not break down and can build up and clog the sewer, causing backups and overflows. “Flushable” kitty litter is a terrible idea. Dropping that dental floss, cotton swab, or other disposable item in a trash can instead of the toilet saves us all money.

Grease and cooking oil should never be put down the drain. Put grease that is solid at room temperature in the garbage. Using any metal can, lined with a disposable oven bag, to collect and store grease makes disposal easy. Liquid vegetable oil is a resource that can be converted to biofuel. You can bring waste cooking oil in any non-glass container to the household hazardous waste drop-off at 1033 Elm St. or the three other locations listed on KUB’s website.

Every gallon of water that moves through the treatment plant costs money, and it just doesn’t make sense to treat clean rainwater. That’s why KUB disconnects roof drains from the sewer and advises homeowners to direct downspouts toward lawn areas, where stormwater can soak into the ground.

The treatment system we support through our bill payments has earned us some bragging rights that might not make the front page but still have meaning for every user of the Tennessee River. All four of our wastewater treatment plants have received the National Association of Clean Water Agencies’ award for perfect or near-perfect compliance with 5,000 measures of water quality. KUB is also proud of its biosolids program. Biosolids are the rich, organic material that is produced during biological treatment of wastewater. That byproduct used to go to the landfill at considerable cost to KUB customers. KUB now gives 30,000 tons of biosolids to local farmers every year to fertilize their fields, saving these farmers about $900,000 in fertilizer costs and saving KUB customers disposal costs. Extensive testing is done first to ensure the product is safe.

Considering that the combined KUB plants discharge 44.6 million gallons of treated wastewater per day to the Tennessee River, the cleanliness of that water is very important to local users of the river as well as downstream communities that draw their water supply from the river. Next time you pay your KUB bill, take a moment to consider what’s behind the wastewater part of it and what it means to you. And don’t forget that the less water you use, the less you pay for both the water and wastewater part of your bill.

Patrice Cole's Small Planet educates readers on local issues pertaining to environmental quality and sustainability. Topics include particular threats to natural resources, public policy with local impacts, and advances in environmental science. She has 25 years of professional experience in environmental science and sustainability. She has also taught biology, ecology, environmental planning, and sustainability at the University of Tennessee and Pellissippi State Community College. Cole earned a master’s degree in planning and a Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology at UT.

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