Lincoln Cleans Up Its Wastewater With Developers’ Help

With the development of several large housing projects, the City of Lincoln is poised for rapid growth over the next 10 years. In 1997, the city’s population was approximately 7,900 residents, with projections of 50,000 residents by 2010 and build-out expected to be 60,000 residents. However, the city had concerns about the existing wastewater treatment facility’s environmental impacts and its ability to handle the demands of a growing population.

Through a strategic planning process, the city council mandated the Department of Public Works to comply with water quality objectives and provide the necessary infrastructure to accommodate rapid growth.

In 1997, the city’s wastewater treatment plant (WWTP), an aerated pond facility discharging to land, was nearing its treatment capacity of 0.8 million gallons per day (mgd). The aerated ponds were unlined and percolating wastewater directly to underlying groundwater and into federal jurisdictional wetlands. To continue wastewater land disposal would have required more than 10 square miles of land due to limited percolation rates and other environmental constraints.

In addition to the impracticality of continuing with the land disposal approach, there were three significant challenges affecting city wastewater treatment and disposal planning:

  1. Meeting the California Toxics Rule;
  2. Preserving Auburn Ravine Creek as a critical habitat for salmon and steelhead migration; and
  3. Assuring the city council that the existing residents would not subsidize new development.

City Uses Cooperative, Innovative Approaches

To tackle these challenges, the city entered into one of the most unique and successful private-public partnerships in the greater Sacramento area. The city partnered with three major developers in an effort to work toward common goals of long-term reliability, cost-effective operation and maintenance, and compliance with environmental regulations.

Through this public-private partnership, the city and its environmental design firm developed cooperative and innovative approaches for meeting both the environmental and growth drive objectives. These included:

  • Purchasing 425 acres of land for the construction of a new state-of-the-art wastewater treatment and reclamation facility for the city’s build-out (9 mgd) along with expansion capabilities to treat future wastewater flows from the cities of Auburn and Newcastle, Placer County surrounding areas and portions of Nevada County (ultimately requiring 29 mgd).
  • Constructing new effluent storage reservoirs on the newly purchased wastewater treatment and reclamation site. The reservoirs would allow for an interim expansion of capacity from the existing aerated pond treatment plant.
  • Establishing funding mechanisms, through approval of development agreements, to build an $80 million dollar treatment and reclamation facility while allowing the city to cost-effectively and strategically oversize certain treatment and disposal plant components.
  • Developing a bulletproof negotiating strategy with the regulatory agencies to ensure that all National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) and waste discharge requirements would be met, with flexibility and recognition of future conditions.
  • Creating a public relations strategy to educate the public and business community of the need to improve the quality of wastewater treatment, and develop a plan to provide recycled water.
  • Devising a solution to mitigate the elevated contaminant concentrations and other issues associated with discharging to critical aquatic habitat.

In November 1992, the city obtained the NPDES discharge permit from the regional water control board. The permit was placed on the consent agenda at the regional hearing and, because the conceptual process design was so extremely reliable, the NPDES permit was obtained without challenge from individuals, public agencies or special interest groups.

Up and Pumping

The city’s new Wastewater Treatment and Reclamation Facility (WWTRF) began operating in October 2004, concurrent with closure of the old aerated pond treatment plant. This new facility was designed under the direction of the city’s Department of Public Works and contracted by the developers for its construction. The WWTRF has been discharging to Auburn Ravine creek in complete compliance with its discharge limitations on a consistent basis since May 2005. It is the most innovative treatment facility of its kind, and monitoring indicates that the facility far exceeds the design intent for the reduction and/or removal of all chemical contaminants. New technologies include maturation ponds and ultraviolet disinfection.

As a result of the city’s negotiation with agencies during the permitting process, the State of California Department of Health Services now allows rice to be irrigated with recycled water of like quality to that produced by the city. Rice is a significant crop in California, and the ability to replace existing sources of water for irrigating rice fields with recycled water will allow for community development in Western Placer County and in many other parts of the state.

The City of Lincoln believes many lessons can be derived from its wastewater treatment project that may apply to other communities, including:

  • Cities should undertake public education that explains the link between wastewater treatment and environmental enhancement.
  • The state and cities share the mutual goal of protecting regional groundwater and the local aquatic environment. Working in a cooperative manner with the regulators and the development community toward achieving these common goals allows the development of permits that are mutually beneficial.
  • Public-private partnerships can be a successful means of implementing complex public works projects that ensure commitment to a quality infrastructure product and respect for each party’s interests.

The new facility’s regionalization capabilities allow it to serve Placer County, Auburn, Newcastle and portions of Nevada County, putting Lincoln among the most forward thinking cities for wastewater and disposal planning.

By developing private-public partnerships, implementing innovative environmental quality solutions and coordinating with regulatory agencies, the City of Lincoln has balanced the needs of its growing population with care of the physical environment.

The City of Lincoln won the Grand Prize for this project in the Public Works, Infrastructure and Transportation category of the 2005 California Cities Helen Putnam Award for Excellence program. For more about the award program, visit

This article appears in the February 2006 issue of Western City
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