Pickerington officials are poised launch a project to end a nearly two-year dispute with the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency over water plant discharges into Sycamore Creek.

Pickerington officials are poised launch a project to end a nearly two-year dispute with the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency over water plant discharges into Sycamore Creek.

On Aug. 17, Pickerington City Council unanimously approved the first reading of legislation to hire URS Corp. to design a reverse osmosis system for the city's water treatment plant on Diley Road.

The $140,000 contract is expected to be finalized next month. It will be part of an estimated $2-million effort to nearly eliminate "total dissolved solids" (TDS), which the EPA maintains are flowing from the city's water plant and poisoning aquatic insects in Sycamore Creek.

City officials also believe the project, which they had hoped to avoid for much of the past 18 months, will put them in compliance with EPA standards and clear of future sanctions.

"Obviously, this is a way of solving it and getting the EPA off our back," Pickerington City Councilman Brian Wisniewski said.

Currently, the Diley Road water plant uses conventional sodium water softeners to achieve a desirable hardness level in the city's drinking water. The softeners generate a backwash that is discharged into Pickerington's sanitary sewer system, and is then sent to the city's wastewater treatment plant on Hill Road.

City officials and the EPA agree those particles are too small to be treated by the city's conventional wastewater treatment plant and therefore pass through the system directly into Sycamore Creek via the city's treated water discharge.

While the discharges don't present a health risk to humans, the EPA says they're toxic to species in Sycamore Creek.

Sycamore Creek is part of the Walnut Creek watershed. Water from the creek and the watershed flow into the Scioto River.

EPA officials have said efforts to clean up the watershed in recent years have led to a resurgence of aquatic life that previously hadn't been seen in 50 years.

Prior to the latest development, city officials sought several measures to comply with the EPA, including contesting the TDS and phosphorus limits. They also spent $22,000 for EnviroScience of Stow, Ohio, to determine if Pickerington's effluent is having an impact on species in Sycamore Creek and what the city's true TDS permit limit should be.

In February, Pickerington also began using less salt in water softeners at the water treatment plant.

City engineer Greg Bachman said the reverse osmosis system should nearly eliminate TDS, while also maintaining desirable water hardness for city residents.

"Unlike the existing ion exchange (salt) softening at the water treatment plant, there is virtually no TDS added with reverse osmosis systems," he said. "Reverse osmosis is the best system available at the water treatment plant to reduce TDS.

"We are reasonably confident that the installation of a reverse osmosis system will put the city into compliance with the Ohio EPA," he said. "With the above being said, there is still TDS that occurs naturally and water customers that have home water softeners add TDS to the system. We will monitor the TDS levels as the reverse system comes on line and work with Ohio EPA on any remaining issues."

Barring future hiccups, city officials plan to have the reverse osmosis system in place by the end of 2011.

Prior to installation, the system will require design approvals from the EPA.

EPA spokeswoman Erin Strouse said last week the reverse osmosis system is one of several options available to the city. She said EPA officials weren't aware of Pickerington's decision to hire an engineer to design a system, but said the EPA will assist in its implementation if the designs are consistent with agency standards.

"Certainly, we appreciate the community's efforts to eliminate the problem," she said. "This is a significant change for the city, and when they get to that point, they'll need to work with the agency to implement the reverse osmosis system.

"The reverse osmosis system produces a waste product, so we'll need to discuss that waste product, where it's going and how it's going to be addressed."

Funding for the design and construction of the reverse osmosis system over time will come from the city's water utility fund. The fund is financed by fees city residents and businesses pay for water services.

Bachman said the city could fund the project upfront through $2-million in bonds or notes, which would be paid off over 20 years.

He said the debt service for the project would be roughly equivalent to the amount the city would pay annually for salt for water softening.