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Wastewater reclamation plan gains wave of respect
Proposal replenishes Lake Michigan; serves rural and urban economic interests

WHEATON, Ill.—When hydrologist Jack Sheaffer offers an explanation on waste water management he begins with a statement simple enough for a 5-year-old to understand. “All the water that ever was or ever will be has been here since the earth was formed.” A completed impact study of the Hammond Water Reuse Project is slated to demonstrate the societal, economic and environmental benefits of a no-discharge wastewater effluent management and reuse plan funded by a system of carbon credits and commodities trading enough to cover the $150 million outlay.

The practice of carbon trading is routinely relied upon in Europe to fund major infrastructure projects, he said. Already carbon credit experts and Chicago-based commodities investors are planted firmly in the overall project design. 

In consideration of the serious implications of climate change and the growth in population, Sheaffer said water and natural nutrients are no longer elements to be wasted. The irrigation effluent not only meets U.S. EPA standards for nutrient release, it also satisfies public health regulations, which mandate regular testing. The project design does not allow for the intrusion of solid waste, Sheaffer stressed.   

As Managing Director for the Center for Transformation of Waste Technology (the Center), Sheaffer has designed the kind of project that gets environmentalists, economists and engineers alike cheering for a no-waste, cost-savings, holistic approach to water conservation. His plan is unique because it reclaims pre-used water and uses it to generate wealth. Having gained support for a proof of concept investigation from Indiana’s Sanitary District of Hammond, Sheaffer’s process aims to halt the discharge of sewage effluent into Lake Michigan tributary streams and to reuse the nutrients—nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, which are the ingredients contained in crop fertilizer. Built on a system of integrated designs that operate to produce revenues enough to cover construction costs along with the financial obligations associated with systems operations and maintenance, the Hammond Water Reuse Project offers an authentic solution for the multi-pronged aspects for sustainable development and environmental preservation.

“We have to unlearn the traditional methods for treating sewage and use sewage instead to generate wealth,” said Sheaffer, a retired research professor at the University of Chicago and nationally acclaimed floodplain specialist.

Project implementation and job creation  
Implementation of the Center project begins by diverting 38 million gallons of already treated effluent from the Sanitary District of Hammond and moving through underground pipes that extend along abandoned railroad tracks to a storage reservoir. From there, the water would be pumped to irrigate 11,350 acres of cropland, parks/open space, designated parcels within the northwest Indiana flood control project, golf courses, property surrounding local airports and cemeteries.

“All in all, it’s a synergistic plan that generates jobs by creating small business opportunities, which provide for a sustainable rural economy,” said Sheaffer. A combination of enhanced crop production and expanded agri-business opportunities calls for the creation of an estimated 100 permanent jobs in the immediate region, he said. 

Since 6,900-acres of the total project consist of active farms where corn is the primary crop, Sheaffer has estimated a 57 percent increase in yield due to the draught resistant reclaimed source of irrigation. The option exists for crops to be sold as animal feed or feedstock for use in a newly created ethanol processing plant. The water supply for the ethanol plant itself would come from the storage reservoirs rather than relying on Lake Michigan for its source of operational water.

A project-integrated ethanol plant would produce an estimated 1.49 million pounds of corn oil, which translates into one pound per bushel of feedstock along with 7 million gallons of ethanol. As for the leftovers—mainly protein residuals—they’re not wasted either. Protein residuals would become the basic diet for dairy cattle in a Confined Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO). A 500-head dairy operation in Lake County, Ind. has been identified as a project partner. The CAFO’s animal manure would be conveyed to an anaerobic digester, which then produces biogas to help power the ethanol plant. In addition, the residuals from the anaerobic digester can be further used as fertilizer on crops. 

Environmental improvements to realize goals of 1972 Clean Water Act        
The Hammond Water Reuse Project would manage and reuse the daily release of 38 million gallons of wastewater effluent, which currently is being discharged into the Lake Michigan basin. Specifically, the project would eliminate the unnecessary delivery of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium to the lake. Sheaffer explained that the practice of irrigation allows for the natural cleaning of water. When land is irrigated with an almost mist-like process delivered weekly through center pivot rigs, the water percolates through the roots of prairie grasses and other plant systems before seeping back into Lake Michigan.

At the same time, the project is designed to serve as a model of clean water practices. Sheaffer’s plan has found support from USDA offices in Northwest Indiana, the Northwest Territory Resource, Conservation and Development Council, Farm Bureau, Northwest Indiana Regional Planning Commission and Northwest Indiana Focus along with municipal and county planners. The project puts into practice the goals identified in the 1972 Clean Water Act, which Sheaffer co-authored in his role as Chief science Advisor over the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. A crucial aspect of the federal act is the integration of organizations for best practices in the reduction of pollution, conservation of resources and increased revenue streams.    

A member of the Northeastern Illinois Regional Water Supply Group and advisor for the planning organization’s 2040 preparations, Sheaffer is a strong advocate for authentic environmental solutions. “When you’re dealing with water, you have to consider storm water management (including the rate of the flow and the pollutants it carries).” With that information at hand, it makes sense, he said, “to link the hydrologic cycle with the nutrient cycle and the nutrient cycle with the carbon cycle.”

Practical social justice measures
These implications, taken together with wastewater management, pose an environmentally sound strategy. “It’s as matter of applied stewardship as it concerns the earth. Protecting the earth’s resources is a social justice issue on a grand scale,” he said.

At the same time, project experts at the Center are in the process of arranging for further financial benefits for the region around Hammond, Ind. “As we recycle the nutrients in wastewater, we can gain carbon credits. As we arrange for the capture and storage of storm water runoff, we reduce non-point source pollution, such as storm water runoff.”  

The Center is intent on implementing a plan that uses wastes to generate wealth and model safe practices. Full implementation of the project provides overall society with a windfall—improved crop productivity and a cleaner Lake Michigan. The intricacies of the project require a unique collaboration between urban and rural communities along with environmental and conservation entities. Eventually business and industrial partnerships are anticipated to take shape. The practicality of the project relies on a series of agreements between the sanitary district that treats the wastewater and the farmers who supply the food for the cities.

Equally important is the fact that the reuse of wastewater nutrients is a proven method for protecting water quality and preserving farmland. Wastewater reclamation cannot be accomplished without a partnership between environmental program initiatives, businesses, governmental agencies and private concerns. According to Sheaffer, “a tunnel vision” approach is no longer acceptable. The Center has identified its moral responsibility to seed and support economic opportunities that target sustained environmental improvements.

Sheaffer said he looks forward to helping to provide clean water solutions for citizens around the globe and addressing issues specific to the “dead zones” in the Gulf of Mexico and in the oceans.                                             

For information on the Hammond Water Reuse Project or the Center for the Transformation of Waste Technology, call (630) 456-8585.  

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