Trendsetter Richmond Hill

Russ Bryant
Safe haven: Richmond Hill’s new Sterling Creek Water Treatment Facility|!!| a manmade wetlands system designed to protect water in the Ogeechee River|!!| has also become a wildlife sanctuary|!!| says Mayor Richard Davis

When Richmond Hill’s population jumped 137 percent in the decade of the ’90s, leaders in the Bryan county town of 8,000 nestled against the port city of Savannah were celebrating a growing prosperity. As the hoorahs subsided, those same leaders noted an attendant rise in infrastructure demands, one centered on its public works department, particularly the delivery of water.

Its role as a commuter community to neighboring Savannah and the growing number of resort and retirement homes of $1 million-plus had residential real estate buyers standing pen in hand, ready to sign contracts, while builders and realtors were clamoring for sewer lines and water taps.

At one point in the late ’90s, Richmond Hill faced a building moratorium and the real threat of dying of thirst as the state announced restrictions on the amount of water the city could take from the ground.

After wading through a maze of bureaucratic red tape, and a lawsuit, Richmond Hill is now awash in water. The city has expanded its wastewater treatment plant and upped its permitted water withdrawals from 1.5 million gallons a day to 3.2 million gallons a day, along the way becoming the first municipality permitted to drill for water in the lower Floridan aquifer, an ancient source of the vital commodity.

At a November ribbon cutting to mark the opening of the new well, Mayor Richard Davis took the ceremonial first drink of water. Richmond Hill leaders, it seems, have a special passion for water and the delivery thereof. “Water disputes have plagued the city for years,” Davis says. “Now we are on the right track.”

And that track leads straight to CH2M Hill Operations Management International, Inc. (OMI), the unwieldy name of the private company Richmond Hill selected in 2000 to operate its public works department.

The centerpiece of that department is Sterling Creek Wastewater Treatment Facility, a 495-acre site that looks perfectly at home in the marshes of Coastal Georgia. That’s not surprising, as its origins lie in a move to protect the scenic Ogeechee River, which ambles by Richmond Hill on its way to the ocean.

“I attended an Environmental Protection Depart-ment meeting back in 1995 when Savannah was looking to put its effluent in the Ogeechee,” Davis recalls. “We were putting our treated wastewater into the Ogeechee too. When I saw the concern in those people who lived on the river, I made the commitment that when it became necessary to expand our [wastewater treatment] plant we had to do something better than that.”

The result is a system that puts treated water on spray fields and into manmade wetlands that act as filters before it is sent to the river. “The water put in the river is cleaner than the water in the river,” Davis says. “We treat our wastewater like nature does, running it through wetlands to let nature purify it like it always has done.” And there’s a bonus: The wetlands treatment center has become a tourist center and attraction for naturalists.

“You can’t imagine the number and species of birds and deer and wild boar that call that sanctuary their home,” Davis says. “We have bird watchers from all over the country coming here to look at the birds.” The Sterling Creek plant is a safe haven for coastal fauna for several reasons. First, there’s no hunting on the land. “And too, the conventional method [of wastewater treatment] requires a lot of energy and a lot of chemicals,” says City Manager Mike Melton. “What we use requires little energy and no chemicals.”

Melton finds another kind of beauty in the privatization of the management of the treatment center and the delivery of other public works services. “Since hiring OMI, we have saved money with them every year,” he says. “A great deal of the savings comes from the fact that the city no longer has direct labor costs, employee benefits, overhead or employee liability costs. And OMI is one of the nation’s leading private operators of water and wastewater systems.”

In addition the private company has immediate access to more than 7,500 technical experts, giving Richmond Hill an invisible till needed reserve of consultants and specialists. Best of all, Melton says, employee absenteeism, tardiness, sick days, wage disputes, health care, injuries and liability have been eliminated. “That’s all OMI’s problem now.”

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