Owsley Fork Dam expansion best option for maintaining water quality

The City of Berea enjoys what is arguably some of the cleanest and best tasting water in central Kentucky, and if a plan to raise the Owsley Fork Dam by six feet is approved by federal authorities, that high level of water quality should continue for at least another 50 years.

“Our water is some of the cleanest, most aesthetically pleasing, safe water to drink. I would put our water up against any water,” said Berea Utilities Director Ed Fortner.

Fortner recently reported the city is waiting on approval from the Army Corps of Engineers for the design of the dam raising project. One significant difference between Berea’s plan and others typically approved by federal authorities is that the Owsley Fork plan will add water storage capacity, not merely repair or refurbish and existing facility. Fortner said Berea had some work to do in convincing federal officials that raising the dam was a viable option. “We were persistent and we won the day on this project,” Fortner said. “That was a big win for us in Berea.”

As part of the application process, the city had to submit alternative plans for securing more water, though at $12 million, raising the dam was the most cost-effective plan. Other options included building a pipeline to the Kentucky River, buying water from the City of Richmond, and an option called indirect potable use – that of disinfecting and reusing reclaimed wastewater.

Building a pipeline to the Kentucky River is more expensive than the concept Berea is suggesting, running at least $14 million. In the meantime, the City of Richmond has made it clear that as a growing community, it does not have water to sell. That left another option: recycling waste water, which, while it is used around the country, is simply not yet viable in Kentucky because it is not adequately regulated. “Not here, not right now,” Fortner said of the option to use recycled water. “It won’t be considered here anytime soon, though I consider that unfortunate.”

Why unfortunate? Because Fortner says having the option to use recycled and disinfected water could help the city get through difficult times such as droughts. At most, recycled water would be used 30 days out of a given year, supplementing the existing water supply. “It’s a good option because you can call on it when you need it,” Fortner said. “Even if we do the dam project, we should also explore the long-term viability of that option for the future.”

One big obstacle in Kentucky is the perception that recycled water is polluted or dirty water. In fact, Fortner said once recycled water is put through a rigorous disinfecting process, it actually has less impurities than raw water drawn from the reservoir. “That water, believe it or not, is superior to the water that naturally exists in our lakes,” Fortner said.

The way the process works is that waste water is run through the city’s state-of-the-art oxidation waste water treatment facility. The water is aerated, causing the biological degradation wastes and impurities. The solids are filtered out, and the clarified water is ultimately disinfected with ultraviolet rays. At that point, the water is technically more pure than raw water in the reservoir. The clarified water is then channeled into the reservoir to mix with raw, untreated water in the lake. Then, when raw water is pumped out of the reservoir into the city’s water treatment plant, and the recycled water goes through the purification process all over again. Currently that filtered effluent is simply directed into Silver Creek.

Because the community is growing, and because several other communities around the country already employ technologies to reuse wastewater and convert it to clean, potable water, Fortner said somewhere down the line, the city should explore water recycling as an option to augment its water supply. “Water is a finite resource, and this really is where the future of water treatment is going,” Fortner said.

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