Herculean Days: Adventures in Sewage

On June 25, 2013, in Newsletters, by Dean Brightman

Reprinted with permission from The Hercules Express.

In the late 1970s, city leaders in Hercules set themselves with a seemingly impossible task – to manage their explosive growth in the most environmentally responsible manner possible.  One of their biggest problems was how to deal with the wastewater produced from an ever-increasing population.

They set upon a grand experiment that was nothing short of revolutionary – the Solar Aquaculture Wastewater System.  And they were very proud of it, as detailed in the December 1979 Herculean:

“The system consists of a series of holding ponds through which the sewage flows.  In each pond bacteria, diatoms, snails, small fish, water hyacinths, and other plants which thrive on sewage feed on the effluent. The effluent moves from pond to pond becoming cleaner and cleaner. The water in the final pond will be clean enough to irrigate the City’s open spaces and to sell for industrial uses.”

Since this natural process would be too slow to be practical for a city of Hercules’ anticipated size, a large greenhouse would be built over the entire plant to speed up the procedure.  This greenhouse would keep the water at a high enough temperature to accelerate biological activity.

The City was even hoping to profit from the byproducts of this method, by harvesting the water hyacinths to use them as “feed for hogs, cattle and fish or placed in a compost pile and converted into a rich organic fertilizer. Thus, unlike conventional wastewater treatment plants, a product can be sold and bring in a separate income from the thriving vegetation grown in the pond.”

Construction began in March 1979, and the ribbon cutting took place appropriately enough on Earth Day, April 22, 1980.  From the June 1980 Herculean:

“Federal, state, county, and local officials attended an opening ceremony and plant tour.  Without exception, they were impressed with the work done by the City.  This pioneering project has also aroused interest from many groups including the United States Congress, Governor Brown’s office, the Environmental Protection Agency, and cities and counties across the nation.”

Hopes were high for this revolution in waste water.  However, it would eventually come to pass that the revolution would simply go to waste, as it were.

After an initial test run showed promise, once the plant began operating at its designed capacity, the effluent simply would not meet acceptable environmental standards to be certified for use by the state.

An EPA report issued in late 1983 detailed some of the plants structural deficiencies – the ponds were too shallow, the pond-lining material was susceptible to cracking, and back-up power sources were needed to ensure consistent operations and temperature.

After two years of operation, and faced with the option of significant further investment to correct the plant’s operational deficiencies, the City Council voted to shut down operations.  The City’s waste water would continue to be processed by the plant run jointly with Pinole, as it is to this day.

There was one byproduct of the Aquaculture system that would prove very beneficial to Hercules, culturally if nothing else.  One of the delegates present for the plant’s dedication were representatives from the city of Tsushima, Japan.  Not too long after, Tsushima would become Hercules’ sister city, which it has been for more than 30 years.

Dean Brightman is a member of the Hercules Historical Society.

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