Sanitation Department’s clean water project could help fight sea level rise

HAMPTON ROADS, Va. (WAVY) — The Hampton Roads Sanitation Department (HRSD) says its project to clean wastewater could help prevent sea level rise.

General Manager Ted Henifin says the project started two years ago and is called SWIFT: Sustainable Water Initiative for Tomorrow.

Henifin says the department has already successfully made wastewater drinkable. Officials hope that they can now use that treated water to stop the land from sinking.

“People have been pulling water out of the ground for about 100 years in our region and as they’ve pulled water out of the ground, the ground started to fill in place,” Henifin said.

That means wastewater — including water from sinks, toilets and tubes — can be cleaned at a proposed treatment plant and put back underground to fight sea level rise.

“This is the only thing I’m aware of that we can do in our lifetime that can change what’s happening to sea level rise,” Henifin said.

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Plans are already in place to build a pilot treatment plant to churn out clean wastewater and put in back in the ground.

Henifin says the project will be built at their Nansemond plant in Suffolk and should be up and running within a year, pumping 100 million gallons of water a day back into the ground. He says the department hopes to start construction on the first sustainable water purification facility starting in 2020. Five other plants will be built throughout Hampton roads by 2030.

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The project will cost $1 billion, but Henifin says they will use money from rearranged investments so the department’s current financial plans will not be put in jeopardy. He also says construction of the plants will create jobs.

The department is also working with the United States Geological Survey, which is installing a extensometer at the site to measure how high or low the land rises and falls once groundwater is filtered back in.

The extensometer will go in a hole that is 20,000 feet deep, but will only reach 1,965 feet down, according to David Nelm with the USGS. He says the instruments are designed to work for long periods of time and that there are already two extensometers in Franklin and Suffolk.

Henifin says the results and reports kept from the extensometer and treatment plant will be analyzed by trained scientists in preparation for the future facilities.

“We want to have a lot of confidence that what we’re doing today serves generations to come in Virginia and I think we’re really doing it the right way. I think we’d all like for it to go Swifter for Swift but we’re making it go as fast as we can,” Henifin said.

Henifin says the project will not only help fight against sea level rise but keep the Chesapeake Bay healthy by discharging clean water underground.

He says the department is thrilled about the project and has high hopes for it.

“Our whole organization is excited about it. Folks I know, in the environmental world, the water world, everyone’s talking about the project. It’s really a career enhancing thing for everyone involved and we’re excited to make it happen,” he said.