AWWA Articles

CECorps aids town with failing wastewater system

Grover Hill is a little community in northwest Ohio that has a big wastewater problem.

The town’s collection system is rundown and overflows during storms, resulting in sewer backups. Homes in Grover Hill all have their own septic tanks, which are badly corroded, and the town’s wastewater treatment plant has experienced multiple equipment failures.

Two years ago, the Community Engineering Corps dispatched a team of volunteers to Grover Hill, where most of the 400 residents are elderly and low income and unable to pay for engineering services. After conducting extensive fieldwork and research, the team produced a 348-page report that outlines the technical issues and recommends corrective actions. 

The residents now have a blueprint to apply for funding and a strategy to resolve the issues that have plagued them for years.

“It will be a really long process to fund the project. But on a good note, if we hadn’t been able to get the help from the CECorps, the town wouldn’t have taken this step forward to see a doable solution,” said Roberta Streiffert, rural development specialist for the Rural Community Assistance Partnership, a non-profit network that advocates for very small communities. 

The Grover Hill project is the first-ever wastewater project completed by the CECorps, which was established in 2014 to connect volunteer engineers with underserved communities in the United States facing infrastructure challenges. It is a partnership of AWWA, the American Society of Civil Engineers, and Engineers Without Borders USA.

The CECorps has more than 50 active projects, including eight started so far this year. The 10-member Grover Hill project team included engineers from Ohio as well as several engineering graduate students from Ohio State University. 

Clare Haas Claveau, the CECorps director, said the Grover Hill team is one to emulate because members regularly updated AWWA staff, shared their on-location experiences, and delivered a comprehensive final report. She described the project as “a really good success story.”

“We’re not building their system for them, but we are providing them the technical capacity to get them back on track,” Claveau said. “Engineers Without Borders embraces the story of hope. We are giving them the tools to move forward. We can help give them a functioning sanitary system -- everybody needs that.”

Grover Hill’s financial situation is dire. The state auditor recently placed Grover Hill in a state of fiscal emergency after an analysis showed sizable deficits in its sewer operating fund and treasury balance. The town has been reluctant to raise sewer rates since so many residents are already unable to pay.

Dan Barr led the CECorps project team, which also included core members Ryan Brauen, project manager at Wessler Engineering, and Marissa Lauer, now an environmental engineer at Brown and Caldwell. The team also received GIS support from the Maumee Valley Regional Planning Organization and assistance with process control at the plant from the Ohio office of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Barr, pictured at right, said the wastewater system hadn’t been maintained for many years.

“Every house has a concrete septic tank owned by the utility,” Barr said. “That’s where all the solids are collected with the liquids being discharged through shallow small diameter sewers to the WWTP.  The system works well if maintained, but it was not. The septic tanks were rarely being pumped out.  Collected solids were overflowing into the sewers and causing blockages, concrete corrosion, and treatment issues.  The town didn’t have the funds to keep the wastewater treatment plant in repair.”

The project team issued a report, reviewed by a technical review committee, that addresses each of Grover Hill’s wastewater system issues. The team’s recommendations included: Replacing each of the town’s 120 concrete septic tanks with new plastic tanks and access hatches, full-depth cleaning of the 13 manholes, and the rehabilitation of the main lift station. At the wastewater treatment plant, the team recommended septage receiving and air lift pump improvements, diffuser replacement, conversion of the tertiary settling basin to an equalization basin, and new UV disinfection. The team also recommended changes in how solids are handled.

Total price tag: $2.37 million.

Now, RCAP is guiding community leaders as they try to navigate funding alternatives. According to the project team’s report, Grover Hill has already applied for funding through the Ohio EPA’s Water Pollution Control Loan Fund program.

In addition, the report recommends pursuing Community Develop Block Grants and Ohio Public Works Commission funding.

Streiffert said CECorps engineers donated hundreds of hours to Grover Hills’ wastewater dilemma. Their services pave the way for the struggling community to receive financial assistance. 

“Grover Hill is in a much better position for bargaining,” Barr said. “This report, which details what needs done and how much it will cost, is the first thing any funding agency is going to look for.  They have that now.”

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