Grottoes Treatment Plant Getting An Upgrade

In Compliance With Government Mandates, South River Dumping To Decrease

Posted: January 7, 2014

A lagoon at the Grottoes sewage treatment plant collects and eliminates bacteria through an ultraviolet system. (Photo by Matt Gonzales / DN-R)
According to Brandon Kiracofe, excessive levels of nutrients can lead to algae growth, which decomposes, consumes oxygen and affects water clarity, which can impact marine life that thrives in areas such as the Chesapeake Bay. (Photo by Matt Gonzales / DN-R)

Alluring. Fascinating. Breathtaking. Iconic.

Throughout the years, Virginians have used a variety of adjectives to describe the aesthetics of the historic Chesapeake Bay. The 64,000-square mile estuary — the largest in the country — is as well known for its scenery as it is for its recreational use and marine life, making the bay one of the more enticing tourist attractions in the commonwealth.

For years, an assortment of activities, such as boating and fishing, have found a place on the bay, in addition to its position as a key seafood producer for the fishing industry. As a link to more than 150 rivers and streams, the waters of the Chesapeake Bay flow through the Shenandoah Valley by means of the South River.

However, given that high volume of rivers associated with the waterway, combined with frequent activity and unguarded streams that allow for waste runoff, a rise in the estuary’s pollution levels has been seen over the last decade, leading to an increased effort by local and state agencies to protect the integrity of the body of water.

Down By The Bay
Excessive levels of nutrients in the stream can prove highly detrimental, and even toxic, on a number of levels.

“It can lead to the formation of algae growth,” explains Brandon Kiracofe, regional water permits and compliance manager with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality Agency in Harrisonburg. “Then, it decomposes, consumes oxygen and affects water clarity.”

The formation of algae can be disastrous for marine life, leading to the destruction of fish and crabs, which thrive in the bay.

“The nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment are all impacting the bay,” adds Kiracofe. “Many towns are needing to upgrade their [treatment] facilities, in order to help keep the bay healthy.”

In summer 2010, the South River was found to contain higher than normal phosphorous levels, resulting in the DEQ listing it as “impaired,” or not meeting general standards for aquatic life due to this documented benthic impairment. The town of Grottoes has since been ordered by the state to reduce the amounts of phosphorous dumped into the South River, which had exceeded the limit of 1,381.5 kilograms per year.

“We have to change our process,” says Jeff Nicely, Grottoes town manager, noting improvements to the town sewage treatment plant will help reduce these levels.

Nicely maintains that this process has less to do with the idea that town phosphorous levels are creeping into a dangerous statistical territory, and more to do with the state simply taking a more cautious approach to protecting the Chesapeake Bay.

“Nothing has changed in the amount of phosphorus we’ve been dumping into the river over the years, it hasn’t been dangerous, at all,” he explains. “But the state has put more stringent limitations of what you cannot put into the river, which means we have to make changes to our treatment plant.”

The town already has a unique sewage system compared to other area systems. As Nicely points out, in most sewer systems, wastes — both solids and liquids — are transported to a given treatment plant, whereas the town of Grottoes allows gravity to flow the liquids to the treatment plant, while the solids are stored in a collection of septic tanks, which are later picked up and trucked to the treatment plant to be removed in 3-to-5 year increments.

Within the plant, the liquids are stored in one of two lagoons that eliminate bacteria through an ultraviolet cleansing system. Once purged of the sewage, the water is dumped back into the South River, which eventually feeds the Chesapeake Bay.

“The system is good, it works really well,” says Grottoes Town Superintendent Charlie Stickley, who is set to retire this month. “The original treatment plant was built back in 1984, so it’s been up and running for nearly 30 years.”

While the system continues to be efficient and effective, the plant itself will see several changes throughout the next 11 months, in order to properly follow procedure.

Lynchburg-based English Construction began modifying the treatment plant late last month, upgrading a number of aspects of the facility and, most notably, installing new equipment that treats the sewage with alum, a chemical that reduces the phosphorous dumped into the river. Construction is expected to conclude by November 2014, barring any weather setbacks.

“We’re using this as an opportunity to upgrade some of the [equipment] in the facility, as well,” says Marjorie Funk, chairman of the Water and Sewer Committee for the town of Grottoes. “There are a few safety concerns that we have; some of the older equipment needing to be replaced, so we’ll be addressing some of those things, too.”

The town will receive a 20-year, nearly $2 million loan from the Virginia DEQ revolving fund, in addition to a $500,000 grant from DEQ itself, in order to ease the financial burden put on the town. With additional design costs topping $300,000, the total price of the project will hover around $2.3 million, which will be paid through sewage fees and taxes.

“This project is required, but [DEQ] does help with the funding, as well,” adds Nicely.

“We’re on board with it and it’s definitely something that needs to be done for the good of the environment.”

Contact Matt Gonzales at (540) 574-6265 or

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