Rogue Valley Sewer Services has taken over operation of Gold Hill's aging sewage treatment plant after its former contractor walked and failing pumps threatened a potentially catastrophic dump of sewage into the Rogue River.
RVSS signed a 30-day intergovernmental agreement with Gold Hill to keep the dilapidated plant functioning after Southern Oregon Water Technology parted ways with the city after two years.
SOWT owner Mike Bollweg said "critical unresolved issues ... forced a rapid departure" after the city failed to renew his contract. SOWT had provided services since January 2015, helping to keep the city within state compliance despite the plant's myriad problems.
RVSS Manager Carl Tappert said his district has its work cut out for it after discovering a long list of issues at Gold Hill's 35-year-old facility.
On Friday, Tappert said only two of the plant's four required pumps were working and the plant was "one heavy rain shower" away from a catastrophic backup.
By Monday morning, the plant's third pump — a fourth pump included in the design is missing entirely — was online, alleviating the burden on the other two, he said.
"Friday, if one little thing would've went wrong, there could have been a complete failure. Where it stands right now, it's working and we are meeting all permit requirements," Tappert said.
"The plant has a lot of problems. It's rough. A lot of the mechanical systems are just old and worn out and you can keep them working, but you've got to give them a lot of love to keep them going. If you're bleeding, you have to put a Band-Aid on it, but ultimately you want to make it to where you're not bleeding anymore."
Tappert said his agency planned this week to extend the temporary intergovernmental agreement, signed a month ago, to run the plant for the city until a contract could be drafted for a 12-month term.
With a largely new council on board since January, the city has faced a slew of changes after it declined to renew embattled City Manager Rick Hohnbaum's contract last year. City Recorder Mary Goddard resigned in January, leaving City Hall staffed by a handful of temporary employees.
The city also is in the midst of a large project to repair and modernize the sewer collection system, which caused multiple water shutoffs — both planned and unplanned — accompanied by several "boil water" notices because of water line breaks last fall.
Tappert said keeping the treatment plant in compliance with state regulations was the main priority while the city awaits results of the collection system report after repairs are completed.
City Council will eventually decide whether to replace the plant or build a pump station and send the city's waste elsewhere, possibly through RVSS.
"After the city gets the results of that report this summer, that will tell us what direction to go," Tappert said. "We don't know if the plant will be running long-term. They may decide they want to abandon the plant and build a pump station, so the best option right now is to keep the plant going while we wait for that report," said Tappert.
Mayor Chris Stanley declined to discuss the departure of SOWT. He said RVSS "does have a different standard" and that the city had struggled to maintain basic standards at the plant in recent years.
Bollweg declined to comment on specific issues with the city but said contract renewal was his primary reason for leaving.
While Bollweg's company was operating both sewer and water systems for the city, Tappert said RVSS is operating only the sewer system. The current monthly contract with RVSS is set at $17,000 to cover materials and labor, Tappert said, while a yearlong contract would be closer to $360,000.
Councilor Zachariah Dell said the city was left "vulnerable" by Bollweg's sudden departure but that the new council was working well together and recovered quickly.
Dell said he hoped to see the city opt for the pipeline option over replacement of the wastewater plant. Doing so, he noted, could cut residents' existing bills from around $55 to half that or less.
"It would vary due to bonds or loans currently existing from previous councils and for capital improvements," Dell said. "But it should be cheaper than current, no matter the shake out."
— Reach freelance writer Buffy Pollock at firstname.lastname@example.org.