Federal spending boosts plan to strengthen Saco water treatment facility

Jan. 4—SACO — As heavy rain and hurricane-force winds pounded Maine just before Christmas, the Saco River rose, coming within a foot of the driveway to the wastewater treatment plant. It was the closest the river has come to the facility in the 28 years director Howard Carter has worked there.

The threat of flooding at the Saco Water Resource Recovery Facility was very real, Carter said, and shows why plans to upgrade the facility are critical as sea level rise makes that threat even more pressing.

"When we have a big rain event like we did on (Dec. 23), we start backing up through the plant and our treatment capacity is diminished," he said. "If the sea level rises as projected, we're certainly going to be in trouble here in a few short years."

The city is already planning to spend around $54 million to upgrade the facility before that happens. More than $5 million of that total cost is now offset by federal funding that was included in the annual spending bill passed by Congress in December.

The Saco facility is one of six wastewater treatment plants in Maine that are at risk of being overrun by sea level rise within the next 30 years. The Saco River plant is considered by experts to be the most vulnerable because it sits closest to sea level, just 2 feet away from a river with huge tidal swings.

The new federal funding includes more than $1.5 million that will be used to make the electrical components of the wastewater treatment facility resilient to the effects of sea level rise, intensifying weather events and climate change impacts. More than $3.4 million will be used to make the headworks — the first step of wastewater treatment that accepts all flow from the city — resilient to those same threats.

Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, who helped secure the funding, visited the facility in February with Michael Regan, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. Pingree said it is an example of the impacts of climate change on infrastructure.

"Sea-level rise, flooding, and weather events are already wreaking havoc on Saco's water infrastructure, and these impacts will only escalate over time," Pingree said in a statement. "I applaud the team at the Saco Water Resource Recovery Plant and the community they serve for taking action to address this urgent issue. I am proud to be able to help strengthen the plant's resilience to extreme weather and climate change through upgrades to reduce the effects of flooding and their harmful impacts."

The Saco funding was included in the quarter of a billion dollars Maine's independent U.S. Sen. Angus King helped secure for projects across the state that he said will improve the lives of Maine people while investing in the future of the communities.

"Investments like the Saco Water Resource Resiliency Project are a forward-looking example of responsive government putting in the resources and effort now to reduce the chances of much larger infrastructure problems in the future," King said in a statement. "We can either pay this amount now to support the community or far more later if a worst-case storm threatens the people, communities and businesses that are served by the treatment facility."

In November 2021, Saco voters approved a bond question to allow the city to borrow up to $50 million for the project, which will elevate the facility, replace and upgrade wastewater treatment processes and structures, expand the treatment capacity and reclaim green space for community use.

Carter said the city is "elated" to receive the federal funding, which could help offset price increases for materials or reduce how much the city has to borrow.

The facility, built in 1969, treats about 4 million gallons of water a day from 12,000 residents and 375 businesses. During wet weather events, the facility can experience peak flows of up to 13.4 million gallons per day. High tides can cause the facility to back up, preventing it from being able to properly treat the water.

Planning for the project has been underway for several years and is now picking up speed. Last month, the city awarded the contract for the project to MWH, a Colorado-based contractor that specializes in water projects and has worked on projects in Biddeford and Topsham.

Carter said the city, its engineers and MWH will now work on the project design and determine a more accurate price tag for the work. It will need to be approved by the Saco City Council before work can begin.

Construction is expected to start by next summer and be done in five phases through 2026.

"The Saco Water Resource Recovery Facility is a critical community lifeline, and without this historic investment into water, our community could experience catastrophic impacts to our economy, environment, and community," Carter said.