Creswell’s growth stunted by old sewage system

Camas Swale Creek feeling the impact 

CRESWELL — On its surface, Creswell is much like any other small city in Oregon: rural, friendly, laid back.

It’s below the surface where the real problems lurk.

A labyrinth of sewer lines stretching about 20 miles is so old and deteriorated that the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) tasked Creswell with an administrative consent order to fix its entire sewer system back in 1998. 

This year, DEQ is taking a stronger approach to regulation and compliance, updating an existing agreement with the City — restricting the number of new connections to just 15 until the City upgrades its system. 

The improvements will cost the city more than $25 million – a price tag that will trickle down into residents’ sewer bills. 

The east side of town is not affected, as it is served by a private system; however, “this will tremendously impact the growth and economic development of the City on the west side of the freeway, which is served by the City’s water treatment plant,” said Michelle Amberg, Creswell city manager. “It’s not something we’re happy with, but it’s something we want the community to know about.” 

There’s an old saying in the sewer industry: “Dilution is the solution to pollution.” And Camas Swale Creek, which holds the treated runoff from the Creswell sewer pipes, is feeling the years of impact. 

DEQ regulations, system Challenges 

The City of Creswell’s sewer system was built in 1961, using the popular materials of the day – concrete and asbestos cement pipe. Most of the original 1961 piping is still in use, causing a significant amount of groundwater to seep into the aging system. 

Creswell is one of 21 cities in the state under a Mutual Order and Agreement (MOA) with DEQ to stop overflows — a wastewater treatment system’s unintended release of pollutants, commonly the result of broken pipes and extremely heavy rains or blockage caused by grease or debris. 

“The real issue for us is, the small amount of water that’s in that creek doesn’t allow for the amount of discharge that we need,” said Cliff Bellew, Creswell public works director. “The stream has always been the size that it’s been. The real impact is just that the City has grown, and the technology at our plant hasn’t.” 

While no raw sewage overflows have been documented, the City’s current wastewater treatment plant — a gravity collection system and lagoon on the southside of Meadow Lane winter storms often cause the lagoon to spill over, according to the City’s wastewater facilities plan. 

The plan continues, explaining that the City has been unable to comply with state Biochemical Oxygen Demand (BOD) and Total Suspended Solids (TSS) since the 1990s. In other words, the pollutants within the stormwater system have exceeded state regulations for decades — and the lack of oxygen and increase in sludge in the system have caused the water quality in Camas Swale to rise to the level of requiring state intervention. 

“The MOA puts them (Creswell) on a schedule to deal with their infiltration,” said Ranei Nomura,  water quality manager with DEQ’s Western Region. “It’s basically to deal with the fact that they don’t meet their federal technology based effluent limit guidelines for Biochemical Oxygen Demand and total suspended solids. They haven’t met those numbers in a long time.” 

The challenges with the system can be broken down into three categories: lack of capacity, end of useful life, and infiltration and inflow problems. 

Capacity: This type of problem results from pipes that are too small to handle the peak sewage flows. 

End of useful life: This type of problem is the result of old, damaged, or worn out facilities that no longer function as designed, like broken or collapsed pipes. 

Infiltration and inflow: Large amounts of infiltration and inflow are the most significant problem in the City’s collection system. It is the underlying cause of the capacity challenges – groundwater and stormwater is seeping into the pipes, which was intended for sanitary sewage. 

“When groundwater and stormwater get into the collection system and make their way to the wastewater lagoon, you start to have issues,” said Nomura. “A sewage treatment plant is not designed to treat clean water and when you put more water in it, it reduces its effectiveness.” 

The agreement with DEQ also explains that between December 2020 and May 2022, the City of Creswell had been “restricting its effluent flow on required compliance monitoring days,” on 15 occasions, leading to under-reported levels of pollutants being released into Camas Swale. 

Environmental impacts

Under DEQ regulations, Camas Swale Creek is considered impaired for dissolved oxygen — oxygen molecules dissolved in water – and is a major indicator of water quality. Like the air we breathe, the survival of aquatic life depends on a sufficient level of oxygen dissolved in water. 

“When the dissolved oxygen is too low, it affects anything that needs oxygen … plants, animals, bugs or aquatic life,” Nomura said. “With that particular area, and even further down into the Coast Fork Willamette, there are issues with dissolved oxygen and we can’t let somebody move their outfall from one place to another.” 

Bellew says that one of the main challenges in adhering to DEQ’s regulations is low-water levels in Camas Swale and the health of the Coast Fork Willamette. “It’s dissolved oxygen deficient from the get-go,” he said. “So our regulatory requirements for effluent are going to be much higher than maybe another town that discharges into a different stream or river.” 

Jeff Ziller, district fish biologist for the South Willamette Watershed, says the Camas Swale is an essential migration path for the Willamette cutthroat trout. While ammonia levels in the creek don’t reach a toxic level for the fish, there have been challenges maintaining the habitat, especially for the Oregon chub, a fish which flirted with the endangered species list over the last two decades. 

“We found Oregon chub in Camas Swale Creek in 1992 and 1993 at a location upstream of the sewage outfall. Additional sampling both above and below the outfall since that time has failed to produce any chub,” he said. “This area has also been affected by the (Foster Farms) chicken plant effluent so Camas Swale seems to have received a double shot of impacts in the past.” 

The new DEQ permit will require the City of Creswell to monitor ammonia and dissolved oxygen levels to get a more thorough picture of the sewer system’s impact on the environment and fish populations. The Foster Farms plant hasn’t discharged to the creek since 2006, they have shut down operations and have no plans to discharge in the near future. 

“We need to understand the impacts of the sewage treatment plant discharge on the dissolved oxygen and ammonia levels in the creek, ” said Nomura, DEQ. “And we need better data on the flows in the area.” Note that these are requirements in the permit not the MAO so that needs to be deleted.” 

City action, funding

Although overflows are unfortunately common in large cities, it’s the small, rural municipalities that are really struggling, Bellew said. 

Most major cities have the means and the money to make repairs on their sewer systems, while many rural cities have to use general funds to bail out water and sewer services that are supposed to be self-sustaining. 

As a consequence, he said, many have deferred maintenance, struggling just to mend broken pipes on sewer systems. Some were designed mainly to keep sewage from backing up into towns. 

A lot of rural systems are “not meeting today’s performance standards,” Bellew said. “It’s decades and decades and decades of infrastructure put in prior to those expectations.”

Bellew, who’s worked with the city for nearly 23 years, says the city has known for years they’d need to upgrade the treatment plant to comply with DEQ’s regulations, but were unaware of the new inflow requirements in the MOA that restricted new connections. 

“Every time someone comes in and wants to build a new building, they have to pay a systems development charge which goes into our funding to make these repairs to get additional capacity,” Bellew said. “Without those connections, they’ve limited our income. There was never any mention that was going to be part of the permit process.” 

“We’ve been saving money and taking steps to prepare for the upgrades,” he said. “Now, we’ll be rescheduling most of the standard work we do to comply with the permit and stretch our employees to take care of the issues that DEQ requires us to.” 

The City has nine years to comply with DEQ’s regulatory plan, which will include upgrades to the treatment system, piping throughout the City and new monitoring of outflows. His team has already begun work hiring a consultant to evaluate the sewer system and advise the City on next steps. 

“It’s going to either eliminate or severely upgrade the plant that we have, so that we can meet those discharge limits,” he said. “But we’re not going to be free and clear to have unlimited new connections when the treatment plant is taken care of.” 

Bellew estimates the project will require $10 million in pipework and $25 million to fix the treatment plant, but with rising costs in labor, equipment and supply chain challenges, time will tell. 

Amberg says that the City will use reserve funds to support the contracting work, but hopes the city will collaborate with other government entities down the line to alleviate costs.

“We’re hoping to work with the County and Sprignfield to potentially tap into the Goshen pipeline,” she said. “We will also be looking to the state for grants and low interest loans as well as approaching our elected representatives at the state and federal level to request additional funding.” 

DEQ operates the Clean Water State Revolving Fund Program, which acts like an environmental infrastructure bank by providing below-market rate loans to eligible recipients for water infrastructure projects. Because of Creswells’ size and population–less than 6,000 residents, it may be eligible. 

She added, “We expect to see sewer rates climb in the future as we perform the work.  The timeframe is expected to be seven years.” 

Economic impacts

As for the long-term economic health of the City, the hefty price tag of these regulations will not only impact resident’s bills, but also Creswell’s ability to grow. 

The MOA restricts the number of new connections, or new sewer hookups, to just 15 until the City upgrades its system, and will roll out more connections as upgrades are made. 

“If your treatment plant is overloaded, whether it be overloaded with sewage or overloaded with stormwater and groundwater, you cannot adequately treat more sewage,” Nomura said. “So how can you justify to DEQ that you can take extra wastewater and still treat it?” 

According to Creswell’s most recent housing needs analysis, completed in 2019, the City will need 849 new dwelling units to accommodate expected population growth by 2039. That averages out to a little over 40 units per year for the next 20 years. 

“The DEQ’s decisions will negatively impact construction and slow down some economic development on the west side of the City,” said Curtis Thomas, Creswell city planner. 



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