A Master Plan Earned Macon Water Authority a Big Industrial Client and a Bright Future

Long-term master planning has been vital in helping the Macon Water Authority handle current conditions and prepare for the future.

A Master Plan Earned Macon Water Authority a Big Industrial Client and a Bright Future

The new booster facility will push water out to local projects and communities.

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The Macon Water Authority is a testament to the value of master planning.

In 2018, a new industrial customer, Irving Tissue, began plans to construct a production facility in the Georgia community, and a major reason why Macon was chosen was the detailed master plan it had recently adopted for its water system. Irving Tissue knew that the Macon Water Authority could accommodate its water needs now and into the future.

The combination of the Canadian-based company’s arrival and the MWA master plan led to three major water projects the utility recently wrapped up: a 3 million-gallon elevated water storage tank, an accompanying water booster station and 7,000 feet of new 20-inch waterline. While the projects were largely driven by Irving Tissue’s needs, they will also significantly help the utility as a whole going forward, says Ray Shell, MWA’s assistant executive director.

“I’m convinced personally that if we didn’t have the master plan and our distribution model to the quality it was, we would not have been able to attract an industry with a water demand like Irving Tissue,” Shell says. “When you can sit down with (a new potential industrial customer) and show them a master plan for your community, it is a huge advantage. They can see how that utility looks to the future and plans for the direction it needs to go in.”

New in town

MWA began crafting its water system master plan in 2015. It was completed in 2018, right when Irving Tissue came into the picture. The timing was ideal. Much of what MWA has accomplished in recent years was already included in the plan, which is why Irving Tissue was interested in the first place, but the utility was also able to quickly add amendments to specifically address the impact of its new high-demand customer.

“We were able to accommodate them and how they would impact our system and how we would consequently arrange our long-term contract with them to handle these capital improvements. How we would structure the rates for them,” Shell says. “I think that shows the importance of master planning, whether it’s on the water or wastewater side and regardless of the size of your system. It’s not something required at the state level or by the EPA. You voluntarily do a master plan at the local level, but the payoff is really big for the future. Not a whole lot of folks are able to attract a customer like Irving Tissue.”

Irving Tissue came in with an average water demand of 1.5 mgd, which MWA was able to immediately provide without any changes to its system. But as Irving Tissue progresses through the phases of the buildout of its facility, which officially came online in early 2020, its demand will eventually be upward of 4 mgd, necessitating a utility like MWA that has a clear growth plan.

“They also have a certain situation where they have a brief demand of 6 mgd for not more than six hours to take a machine down and bring it back into service. We can’t meet that demand without the booster station,” Shell says. “All these new projects help tremendously with this customer, but they also have other benefits.”

Take the new 3 million-gallon elevated storage tank. The core of MWA’s water system has always been a single water treatment plant. That presented a problem if a pump went down at the plant.

“From the core, through tanks and booster stations, we provided for newer developed areas, but that core always remained pump-based,” Shell says. “If a pump wasn’t running at the plant, the core of our system didn’t have pressure.”

The new tank is configured at an elevation and size to be able to step in and provide for the water system core in the event of an issue at the plant.

“Service can be maintained by that tank in absence of pumps at the plant,” Shell says. “Not too long. Maybe about four hours under high-demand conditions, and under planned outages for maintenance and system changes we could get upward of 12 hours. But before we couldn’t even de-energize the building that has the high-service pumps. This tank changes the way we run our water plant and is a big improvement for us.”

And the tank wouldn’t have been possible without a detailed master plan that was able to justify its construction.

Sounds like a plan

Shell has been with MWA since 2005. He had his first experience with master planning in a previous position with a water utility in Johnson City, Tennessee. There he worked closely with a firm that was hired to create a master plan for the water system and he learned how to do distribution system modeling. Since then he’s been a proponent of the method and how it pulls various elements together in a single blueprint to best set up a utility for success.

For those not experienced with master planning, Shell suggests looking to state industry associations for any educational resources that can help.

“If you go to conferences for your state association, keep an eye out and see if there’s a presentation on system master planning. That’s a good starting point to just get an overview of what it is all about and how important it is,” Shell says. “The best way to convince yourself and your utility board is to be able to see someone who has experienced a master plan and the successes they have had from it.”

Shell says he would like to one day do a presentation at a state conference about how master planning has benefited MWA because the biggest hurdle is oftentimes the price tag for doing one properly.

“When you go to your utility board and say you want a master plan, they sometimes don’t see the value of it right off,” he says. “You’ll get an attitude of, ‘We’ve gone this long without one. It’s a waste of money.’ It is an expense. Our water system master plan was about $300,000. A smaller system probably could do a good master plan for $100,000 or less. The distribution modeling is the thing that really bumps up the cost. But it’s important. The successes you get out of it I think are worth it.”

Wastewater rehab

In addition to all the major water projects of late, MWA has also done a considerable amount of work on the wastewater side. Though much has been completed, there is still a lot left to do, and that is why Shell has his sights set on establishing a wastewater master plan as well. A major focus would be expansion of the utility’s two wastewater treatment plants, which are nearing max capacity. Shell estimates that average daily flows are at 80% treatment capacity at the moment. Irving Tissue has been a major contributor, as has other industrial growth in Macon in the past decade.

“I’ve cautioned our board that they don’t want to ignore this,” Shell says. “If you start today with an expansion and go through all the regulatory hoops and the design and the construction — if all goes well for you — it’s going to be a total of about five years before you’re done and have an expanded plant. If you ignore it, you’ll eventually start touching that max capacity on monthly reports and it will get the state’s attention. You could end up with a moratorium on your system, meaning no new taps. It can be devastating to a community because it can take several years to get out of that and achieve your expansion. In the meantime, you can’t have any growth.”

Expansion is that next step, but recently MWA completed about $51 million worth of rehab work on its existing wastewater treatment infrastructure. Shell says it was long overdue. The older of the plants, Lower Poplar, was built in 1958. The Rocky Creek plant was constructed in 1975. Both had been expanded at least once.

“The equipment in each plant had seen service life, in some cases, of 40 years and it was flat worn out,” Shell says. “And some of the technology, like the aerated grit removal at both plants, never worked great in the first place. It had become so costly and time-consuming to keep the equipment operational that the top of the list was just to clean up both plants, replace worn-out equipment, and bring in new technology where appropriate. People might say, why did you spend over $50 million and not address expansion? The reason is the plants had been ignored for so long that we had to first get to a baseline of reliability and just clean them up, knowing that a lot work still needs to be done in the future.”

From new Duperon screens to improve trash and grit removal at the headworks to a change from belt presses to a rotary press product from Fournier, the rehab project touched countless areas of operations at the two treatment plants. Key to the process were MWA’s own maintenance workers and operators. In April 2017, when MWA had reached the design phase on the wastewater rehab project, a list was created with all the equipment and processes being considered along with the manufacturers of those various options. From there, another list was created containing treatment plants using any of those products that were within reasonable driving distance of Macon. Over the span of about three months Shell, alongside small teams of four to six different operators and maintenance workers, took field trips to 34 different plants to get a firsthand account of their colleagues’ experience with the equipment and processes they were considering.

“We visited treatment plants all over the Southeast, mainly around Atlanta, but also several in Tennessee and several in southern Georgia all the way to the coast,” Shell says. “When we visited a plant, we weren’t there to talk to the upper management. We might chat to them a little bit, but our focus was to talk to the operators and maintenance crews who had used and kept up that equipment the entire time it had been in service. I wanted our folks who handle that to talk to other plants’ folks who do that. We wanted to hear firsthand their experiences using the equipment we were considering.

“It was laborious to do that, to coordinate those trips and take time away from everything else we had to do, but it had a lot of value to it.”

Aside from making informed decisions about what products to use for the treatment plant rehabs, an additional benefit from the field trips was MWA employees simply getting some general education about different processes.

“When people come to work for a utility and become operators, more than likely that’s the only wastewater plant they’ve ever been in,” Shell says. “Just letting them get out and go to these other treatment plants was valuable. They got to see a membrane plant, a sequencing batch reactor plant, and plants of all sizes up to 150 mgd. How else would they have ever seen that?”

 Ready for the future

As MWA finishes up the recent phase of vital projects for its water and wastewater systems, there remains a lot of activity for the utility. A new executive director, Joey Leverette, recently came on board, taking over for Tony Rojas, who had been in the position for two decades. MWA is also now responsible for a stormwater utility, the operation of which had formerly been under the purview of the local county government but transitioned over to MWA last year and along with it another 40 employees.

All the while, MWA is looking toward the future, even with things that may not be a present concern. Take the issue of phosphorus removal at the wastewater treatment plants.

“As we look at what’s required for expansion, I want to consider phosphorus at both plants, even though we don’t have permit limits on it yet. We just have to test for it,” Shell says. “But having a permit limit is down the road somewhere. In time, I assume it will happen so I want both plants to have accommodations for phosphorus removal. I like to look to the future.” 


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