Nashville now has a plan to fix the violations which the state found at its wastewater treatment plant last year.
In the meantime, new customers are still able to connect to the town sewer. That includes a new neighborhood that’s being proposed for 11 acres between Coffey Hill Road and Tuck A Way Ridge Drive.
“There’s plenty of capacity for 15 homes,” said Dax Norton, strategic direction adviser for the town, whose firm, MS Consultants, is helping the town work through the state violations and a long-term plan.
“There’s probably enough capacity for 50 homes — that’s given that the I/I problem is completed in pretty hasty fashion,” he added.
“I/I” is a problem that town leaders have known about for years. “I/I” stands for “inflow and infiltration,” or water that isn’t actually wastewater getting into the town’s sewer treatment plant. This elevates the plant’s flows and reduces its capacity to take on and treat actual wastewater instead of rainwater that seeps into the system through leaky pipes and manholes.
Late last year, the Indiana Department of Environmental Management cited the town for seven violations at the Nashville wastewater treatment plant. Those included an overflow at the plant last February; not notifying IDEM promptly when the overflow occurred; having no preventative maintenance plan for the plant; disposing of sludge in a way that could have allowed it to enter Salt Creek; a road salt pile washing into Salt Creek; not responding to violation letters; and not having enough staff to ensure that the plant is operated in compliance with IDEM rules.
MS Consultants contracted with the town to form a plan to address the violations so that the plant could continue operating.
Eliminating sources of I/I was one of the actions the town was required to take, among many others.
Rumors began flying the last week of February about the town being under a sewer moratorium, or a ban on new connections, because of the capacity issue, the IDEM violations, or other factors. The Democrat received five calls or visits about it in less than 24 hours; Norton said he received 25.
There is no moratorium, Norton said. He had traced that information back to an employee at the plant who was acting out of an abundance of caution by telling people that the town wasn’t taking on new customers. If the town were to tell a potential sewer customer that capacity was available, and it wasn’t, that could cause huge problems for a developer and the town. It could even result in the town getting its IDEM permit taken away, Norton said.
Even though there isn’t a connection ban right now, fixing the I/I issue is still critically important. If it isn’t fixed, the town could become unable to offer sewer service to any potentially large, hypothetical development that would want to locate here, because it wouldn’t have the capacity, Norton said.
Currently, the plant, at 600,000 million gallons per day, is averaging about 65 percent capacity. If the infiltration problem was fixed and maintenance was kept up, Norton believes it would be running at more like 40 percent capacity.
“The infiltration is an issue when it rains. When it’s not raining, we’re fine,” he said. “That’s the immediate fix that needs to take place.”
Norton is recommending that the town apply for a grant from the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs to do that.
The county also is planning to apply for a grant from the same agency to fix and expand the stormwater collection system in Helmsburg.
MS Consultants is nearly finished creating a strategic plan for the town’s wastewater treatment plant to allow for community growth.
That growth could come slowly and organically — like a few houses or businesses hooking on here and there — or it could come from a more planned influx of wastewater, like a hotel or a mixed use development.
The strategic plan, which the town council will be seeing soon, will recommend that the town increase the size of its wastewater treatment plant, taking it from a 600,000 gallon-per-day to a 1 million or 1.2 million gallon-per-day facility, Norton said.
He believes it can be done on the land where the plants sits now, even though that land is in a flood zone.
As the town’s contracted “strategic direction adviser,” Norton often gives recommendations to the council about Nashville’s economic future. He draws from 15 years of experience working in that arena in several Indiana communities.
“There’s two things here: Utilities need to proactively have enough capacity upfront to be prepared and show they’re ready for development, or you have that situation where you attract somebody and that somebody is going to cause the plant to have to be expanded,” he said.
“My opinion, being in economic development for a long time in my career, (if a developer’s plans require an expansion) there should be some kind of economic development agreement where the developer does, in fact, put up a portion of the bill to run the sewer lines and upgrade capacity. That is the only really good way to do it from a return on investment perspective from the community,” he said.
He’s been encouraging the town council to think about who or what they want to attract to Nashville in terms of residents or business and when, so that the town can plan for things like this.
After the plant is expanded, “Then what you can do is figure out a large enough … capacity fee that a developer pays upfront — larger than what we have now; right now we’re just charging tap fees,” he said. “… That would start to defray the cost of the plant as a whole for the expansion. If the plant is expanded long before a developer comes in, that’s how you get the money back from developers that do come online.”
The town’s last large business development came in 2016-17, when restaurant and distillery Hard Truth Hills was built on 300-plus acres at the edge of Nashville. The company had started with one tiny restaurant in Nashville in 2009. The town annexed the long-vacant Hard Truth Hills land at the owners’ request and hooked it onto sewer and water.
“They’re just lucky, I guess, that Hard Truth doesn’t use a tremendous amount of water and put a tremendous amount of water back into the sewer system. They could have, right?” Norton said.
“And what if they want to start building multifamily units up there, or a mixed-use development on their 300 acres? That’s where the master (sewer) plan is going to come into play of telling you how many gallons per day it would cost if the town grows by a certain number of people or industry, and what you should do proactively to get the plant where it should be.
“It’s not going to be cheap.”
The last time
For many years, the town didn’t really have to worry about running out of sewer capacity, because it had built a plant in 2010 that was larger than what it ended up needing right away. It needed more customers to take up that space and help pay the bills.
In the same week in December 2008, the town placed two public notices: to apply for an OCRA grant to expand the wastewater treatment plant, and to annex the Blue Elk land along State Road 46 East. The stated reason for the OCRA grant to expand the plant was to extend sewer service to the Coffey Hill and Orchard Hill neighborhoods, which also were being annexed into Nashville.
Town leaders had known since at least 2006 about the possibility of Blue Elk — then known as Maplewood Village — eventually becoming a large sewer customer. The developer, Steve Alexander, requested town sewer access around 2008, according to a newspaper story from 2014.
The Blue Elk vision has changed several times, but most recently, in 2014, it was to contain 80 affordable housing units — a mix of apartments and “garden homes” — as well as retail space, a hotel and possibly a water park. The 70 acres where it was to go sit at the junction of State Road 46 East and Old State Road 46 at Salt Creek, near Eagle Park.
That development never materialized due to several factors, including financing and the fact that much of the land is in the floodplain or floodway.
However, other new sewer customers appeared — 65 new apartments at Willow Manor in addition to homes in Coffey Hill and Orchard Hill, taking the customer base from just over 500 to nearly 800, according to newspaper archives.
Still, sewer rates ended up rising several times around the time the wastewater plant was expanded — and water rates, too — to close gaps in operating revenue. Council members had hoped that Blue Elk would bring in enough revenue to lower rates for everyone.
As of 2012, the plant was operating at about half capacity, according to newspaper archives.
Currently, the plant serves “nearly 800” full-time residents, plus “hundreds more” who visit as tourists, according to the sewer evaluation which MS Consultants did this year.
“Certainly, if you have to expand because you (a developer) want to build here, we need to get into an agreement … where you’re going to foot a portion of this bill, because the rate-payers shouldn’t have to be forced into paying it for you,” Norton said.