Old wastewater plant put out to pasture

(Edmonton) A used-up sewage plant is not an inspiring class project by any means, but a group of University of Alberta students has come up with a classic country way to reclaim just such a site in Lac La Biche.

As their capstone project for a fourth-year land reclamation course in the Department of Renewable Resources, a team of six undergraduates researched how to put out to pasture an aging wastewater plant in the northern Alberta town.

Lac La Biche’s wastewater plant and its two lagoons were built in 1983 to serve the community, but over the years, the small lake that takes the effluent from the plant has become choked with algae, affecting the quality of the Lac La Biche watershed. A new plant is currently being built by the county, but the students, after reading about the issue in a community newspaper, wanted to tackle the dilemma of what to do with the old facility.

The site is perched on the bald prairie, close to already existing recreational areas and a community park, so the students wanted to create something different, but compatible with surrounding land uses. Their solution? An old-fashioned cow pasture.

“We wanted to do something realistic for the area, and it seemed most feasible to reclaim it to a cattle grazing leasehold, because that is what is in demand in the area,” said Ashley Reinhardt, team leader on the project and a newly minted graduate in environmental and conservation sciences. “The site is beside agricultural areas already.”

Together, the students tackled every aspect of land reclamation, viewing past reports about the plant, studying the site characteristics and coming up with a budget of $900,000, based on the estimated costs of labour and material.

“We looked at Alberta databases for soil types, pipelines in the area, legal land locations, aerial photos…everything,” Reinhardt said.

Though the project is a theoretical exercise for the students, every step of the process is researched to the last detail and is ready to apply, said professor Anne Naeth.

“These projects allow the students to hone their skills as reclamation practitioners. It is far more exciting and meaningful if they can use the real sites and real problems.”

The students’ five-year plan calls for the plant’s two aeration lagoons to be removed, along with 750 metres of pipeline, an access road and a parking lot. Berms surrounding the lagoons would be re-contoured, and the surrounding soil loosened and fertilized. The site would be planted with seven types of prairie grasses, which are perfect for grazing. “We researched them all and found them to be palatable to cattle and all native to the area,” Reinhardt said.

The team was pleased with the reclamation plan, she added.
“It is realistic and feasible. It’s tough to say what the community would think about it, but that area, we feel, would be accepting of it. We kept the cost low and it is reclaimed to something that locals can use.”

The experience of sorting the details a real-life project is coming in handy as Reinhardt and her fellow classmates start their first professional jobs.

“This assignment gave us the scope of everything you have to do in a project. We’d never had an idea of how much materials and labour cost. Most of us are working for environmental consulting companies and when doing a proposal, you have to come up with the cost estimates. It’s good to know that.”