Sussex County plans project to convert wastewater disposal, restore woodlands

Georgetown, Del., Jan. 10, 2017: Sussex County is embarking on a conversion project to one of its wastewater operations to improve disposal methods, a plan that literally plants the seeds for a more environmentally sound, user-friendly facility.

County Council, at its Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017, meeting, gave preliminary approval to the County’s Engineering department to move forward on negotiations with the State of Delaware to establish a new long-term lease and convert nearly 400 acres of publicly-owned land at Cape Henlopen State Park near Lewes from farmland to re-naturalized woodlands. The parcel, off Wolfe Neck Road, is currently owned by the State, but utilized by Sussex County for spray irrigation at the Wolfe Neck Regional Wastewater Facility.

With the project, the land would continue to be used for spraying treated wastewater, but rather than discharging onto crops as has been done the past twenty years, the effluent would irrigate hundreds of acres of trees and vegetation, to be planted in the coming years with assistance from the Center for the Inland Bays. Meantime, the State Division of Parks and Recreation would build walking trails and open select areas to the public, which currently cannot access the parcel within the state park.

When finished, the restored woodlands would provide a diverse habitat for wildlife and the new walking paths would add to the State’s current trail system in that area.

“This is a tremendous win for the general public, for the environment and for the County taxpayers,” said County Administrator Todd F. Lawson. “For years, we have been working on several projects that will ensure the County is prepared to meet the future demands of our wastewater disposal. It is exciting to see these projects come to fruition. This project will give the public more opportunities to enjoy Sussex County’s natural beauty, it will provide habitat for local wildlife, and it will also allow the County to evolve its wastewater operation into one that is more efficient, more cost effective, and more environmentally sound.”

The 376-acre parcel is currently used by the County to discharge treated wastewater onto crops that are planted on the grounds, then harvested for non-human consumption, such as livestock feed production. That presents challenges, though, as wastewater operations have to work around numerous factors, including weather, planting and harvest times, pesticide application, and drying conditions, said County Engineer Hans Medlarz.

“Trees allow for a more evenly distributed flow of treated wastewater and consistent, uninterrupted application,” Mr. Medlarz said. “This project will ensure the long-term viability of our operation, which is a significant investment of the County’s wastewater system.”

The Wolfe Neck Regional Wastewater Facility is one of four County-owned complexes that treat waste for more than 60,000 public utility customers, mostly in eastern Sussex County. Built in the mid-1990s, the facility currently services homes and businesses in unincorporated portions of the county in and around the State Route 1 corridor in the Lewes and Rehoboth Beach areas. It is designed to treat 2.23 million gallons of wastewater daily and higher flows in the summer.

Final details of the plan, including annual costs to lease the land as well as project costs to convert the land to natural woodlands, will need to be worked out in the months ahead before receiving final Council approval, Mr. Medlarz said. Sussex County will cover initial costs for the Center for the Inland Bays to reforest the property, as well as provide some funding for public trails to be installed. Those facilities, however, will be maintained in the long-term by the Division of Parks and Recreation.

In addition to partnering with the State and CIB, the County will also team with the University of Delaware to conduct long-term studies of nutrient migration as the land shifts from agriculture to silviculture, providing valuable research and educational opportunities for the university.

County officials expect the project to take between three to five years to fully complete.


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Chip Guy, Communications Director
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