A Most Effluent Adventure

By Josh Ellis

A couple of weekends ago I skied on sewage and lived to tell the tale…

Up in the western Maine woods the Carrabassett Valley Sanitary District converts sewage into effluent (they call it Snowfluent), and then rather than just dump it in the nearby river (which is what would normally happen), pumps it to the base of Sugarloaf USA, where it is made into artificial snow. Thus a waste product becomes a resource, and conserves nearby surface water and groundwater for other purposes. The snow eventually melts and is naturally filtered as it makes its way downstream. For all intents and purposes, the ski slopes serve as something like a detention pond or a storage lagoon like the one in the photo below.

Is it as nasty as skiing on sewage sounds? Hardly, and that’s because it’s not sewage by the time it hits the slopes. It’s treated water that happens to have recently been sewage. These days we have the technology to take pretty much anything out of sewage that we want… and the staff at Carrabasset Valley must be taking a lot out, because we saw plenty of people wiping out all over the mountain – not us of course – and coming up with facefuls of the stuff. Yes, there was plenty of natural snow on the hill too, so it wasn’t pure Snowfluent. However, on at least one day on the slopes with my father, the snow technicians at Sugarloaf had the snow guns blasting on Hayburner and Skidder, and we both skied right through the spray, leaving frosty traces of Snowfluent on our goggles. Nice… but this has been going for years, and everyone is OK.

What amazed me most was how normal this all seemed. Plenty of people around the mountain knew where the snow came from, and others I mentioned the practice to seemed wholly nonplussed…  “The snow comes from where? Huh, I didn’t know that. Cool. Better than using tap water.”  Indeed, I thought, better than using tap water.

If you have followed MPC’s work over the past five years, you’ll know we’ve been at the lead of an effort to modernize the Illinois Plumbing Code so that property owners, developers, architects, water resource managers, and tradesmen would have minimum safety standards for non-potable water re-use systems.  In theory these standards would make it possible for you to capture rain, store it in a legitimate cistern, and use to water a landscaping bed. Or maybe harvest condensate from a large air conditioning system and use it to flush toilets at a fieldhouse. Or reuse effluent to water golf courses. Or take the lightly used water from your laundry – we call that sort of thing gray water – and do something with more productive than just dumping it in the sewer. Interestingly enough, Illinois already has examples of all these things happening, but each of them required a code variance. If we want to truly tap the potential of non-potable water reuse, we need a code that streamlines permitting and eliminates the need for so many variances.

The good news is that all of that smart use of the right water for the right job is on the horizon. For the better part of six months the Illinois Dept. of Public Health has been diligently working on minimum safety standards, vetting them with a stakeholder group facilitated by MPC, hammering out details, etc., and is close to submitting them for review by the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules. All signs point to that happening this spring or summer. I can’t wait, and check back here for updates.

We have lots and lots and lots of rain, gray water, condensate, and effluent out there that we might be able to put to good use. Lots.  Literally billions of gallons a day in northeastern Illinois. That’s a lot of resource water we could be doing something more productive with than we do today… and maybe, just maybe, some of it will some day be made into snow.  Now I just wish someone in the region had a lot of rock, and someone else a lot of sediment, so that we could get working on a mountain!

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