© 2023 WGLT
A public service of Illinois State University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Water reclamation district to issue $100 million in bonds for improvements

The water reclamation district that deals with storm and sanitary water leaving Bloomington-Normal faces major infrastructure needs.

The Bloomington-Normal Water Reclamation District (BNWRD) is moving toward issuing $100 million in bonds for improvements to sewage treatment and runoff. District executive director Tim Ervin said that is roughly a third of a larger effort to modernize the system and comply with tighter federal standards on phosphorous and other nutrient emissions.

A public hearing on the proposed bond issue took place on Monday. The bonds will likely be issued in 3-6 months. Another $200 million in bonds could come some years later.

Size of project

The scope of the work has expanded in the last four years, from an estimate of $160 million in 2019 to $300 million now. Originally, the plan was to modernize BNWRD’s two treatment plants to comply with changing federal limits on phosphorus and other nutrients.

“The district stepped back after the June 2021 floods. We've looked at multiple types of projects that can improve the wastewater treatment processes in Bloomington-Normal," said Ervin. "The bulk of the project will still focus on the water quality standards, but we are looking (at) closing combined sewer overflows (CSOs) and separating storm and sanitary sewers.

"We want to address issues from aging infrastructure, water quality standards, and increasing our capacity to treat wastewater, but also put in operational and maintenance efficiencies to help the residents of Bloomington-Normal.”

The first tranche of $100 million in bonds will pay for three to five years of work on eight projects.

“The renovation of our treatment plants to comply with new water quality standards, lining approximately five miles of interceptor sewers, and separating some of the district sewers that collect both sewer and stormwater,” said Ervin.

In all, he said the plan has changed from one big project to 15 separate ones that will take place over the next 30 to 35 years.

“Upgrades to our Randolph sewage treatment and our facility on far West Washington Street, sewers being lined, a renovation of our grit chamber in west Bloomington, about 4,000 feet of sewer separation for the Wood Street sewer, which was an area of flooding, and you're looking at the elimination of our last combined sewer overflow (CSO) located near AutoZone," said Ervin.

"The district will also study PFAS of many of the industries and commercial businesses in town. BNWRD will replace many of our generators, which are outdated and aged. And then you're looking at regionalization efforts, which includes the new construction of a west interceptor to serve west Bloomington and northern McLean County. You're also looking at just other areas where we can regionalize within Bloomington-Normal.”

What the terms mean

By way of explanation, PFAS are human-made chemicals that persist in the environment and can accumulate in the body. An interceptor is a big sewer pipe that follows a creek and into which the city collection system drains. The district owns not only two treatment plants, but also about 40 miles of interceptor that prevents raw sewage from flowing into Sugar Creek as it did before the district was created a century ago.

Many of BNWRD’s facilities are 75 to 100 years old, said Irvin. Lining extends the lifetime of nearly century-old ductile iron or terra cotta pipes and stops sewer water from leaching into pipes and into the environment. The district owns about 4,000 feet of combined storm and sanitary sewer line that serves the Miller Creek basin around Miller Park. BNWRD will separate storm and sanitary functions that will help the city eventually do the same to its pipe.

“It’s going to be quite a large project,” said Ervin.

Next phases

The next section of projects in several years includes major rebuilds to the treatment facilities.

The new nutrient standard water treatment facilities must meet by 2035 is 0.5 milligrams per liter. BNWRD is currently releasing water that has 5-6 milligrams per liter, Ervin said. There also are state EPA water quality standards that have a deadline of 2030 for compliance. Ervin said BNWRD is deferring the original plan to rebuild the treatment plants to meet tighter federal standards for nutrient emissions such as phosphorus. He said the technology continues to change and it may become easier to meet targets with changes to things other than treatment plants.

“We're kind of backing up on some of our designs and we're taking a second look at our facility. Our Oakland (Avenue) facility operates what we call two wastewater plants within the facility. The original plans had both facilities rebuilt. But we're in a long-term planning process. We're looking at whether we can combine those into one large facility, or do we still need to keep the two systems separate,” said Ervin.

The reclamation district also is conducting stream analysis to see if there can be biological nutrient removal. Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Illinois State University, and other institutions could change the cost outlay and approach, said Ervin.

“With climate change, even with the development of the community, you have to have a very solid sewer system. This not only protects public health, but it protects the environment. And it will give Bloomington-Normal the infrastructure to expand over the next 50 to 100 years. The project that was originally envisioned focused on the water treatment plants. The project we're looking at now takes a much more holistic approach to the entire wastewater system,” said Ervin.

That may produce a bigger bang for the taxpayer buck, he said, and help deal with many issues that have been in existence since the district was created.

How to pay

There has been some effort to get federal funding to help pay for the project. Ervin said, for the most part, that remains a hope, though U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth have helped get access to federal low-interest revolving loan funds. A state revolving loan fund also will help. The area congressional delegation has directed about $1.2 million to help BNWRD absorb the aging Clearview Sanitary District, a subdivision of about 44 homes near Brigham School south of Interstate 74 in Bloomington. That is currently in the design stage.

Sanitary districts were not eligible for ARPA pandemic relief funding.

Sanitation district revenue comes from user fees, a small property tax rate, and sewer connection fees. Ervin said the property tax rate is capped. Money to pay for the bonds and interest will come from user fees. Irvin said BNWRD has been alert to the timing.

“The district's in a fortunate position," he said. "Our existing debt will be paid off over the next two to three years. That creates the ability to support $4-5 million of debt payments per year. We're looking at growing our user fees to accommodate those increases. Our average user fee for a citizen right now is approximately $21 a month. In the next 15 to 20 years that will go up to about $42 per month. We are looking at our rates doubling over the long-long term.”

User fees began to go up several years ago in anticipation of the rebuilding. Those hikes have been between 2% and 5% per year, though this year, it was 15% — which Ervin said is equivalent to an increase of $2.50 per month for the average user.

Ervin said many communities in Illinois face the same challenges of aging infrastructure, tighter government emissions standards, and climate change stresses.

“For the longest time, sewers have been out of sight, out of mind for a lot of communities in Illinois,” he said.

Heavy rainfall events, like the one that caused flooding in 2021 are more frequent now. In the past, the Twin City area had four to five high rainfall events per year that would force sewage into an 80 million gallon holding lagoon until the surge passed and the treatment plan caught up.

That overflow space now gets used 10 to 15 times per year.

We depend on your support to keep telling stories like this one. You – together with donors across the NPR Network – create a more informed public. Fact by fact, story by story. Please take a moment to donate now and fund the local news our community needs. Your support truly makes a difference.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
Related Content