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Tourism-driven growth in Cherokee burdens sewer system

fr cherokeesewerThe tribal council for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians recently approved a $28 million upgrade for the sewage treatment plant, which will double the capacity and accommodate demand fueled in part by growth of Harrah’s Cherokee Casino.

The treatment plant was first built in 1984 and could process 900,000 gallons of sewage daily. In 1997, however, the plant was updated, and its capacity more than tripled to 3 million gallons a day. After the planned expansion starting early next year, its capacity will double to 6 million gallons.

“It was just a matter of how much growth we’ve seen and how much growth is projected,” said Ken Green, lead engineer with the tribe.

The upgrade is much needed, especially since the $633 million expansion of Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort and the anticipated addition of a massive family adventure park in Cherokee. The casino has not only increased guests coming to the resort itself — a number soon to top 4 million a year — but it has also led to people working in Cherokee and contributing indirectly to tourism increases beyond casino property.

The need for additional capacity wasn’t unexpected.

“We did plan for some big usage,” Green said.

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Although 3 million gallons is still enough capacity to handle the current demand, as Cherokee continues to develop, the wastewater treatment plant could eventually find itself maxed out — something the tribe hopes to avoid by upgrading its system now.

“That is kind of where you start planning for your development,” Green said.

On a typical day, the plant only reaches half or two-thirds capacity, leaving plenty of cushion should an influx of sewage flow in. But, heavy rainfalls or snows can flood the sewage system and lead to overflows of untreated wastewater into streams or the nearby Oconaluftee River.

“That is where we have a problem,” Green said.

The expansion will help safeguard against that.

The tribe has admitted that a few overflows have occurred at the wastewater treatment plant. Overflows sparked a lawsuit against the tribe by a nearby resident, alleging that untreated sewage has occasionally spilled out of a manhole cover onto her property. The case is still pending.

The increase in capacity is estimated to carry the reservation through the next 20 years without any need for upgrades. But, Green said, that all depends on how quickly Cherokee grows.

“If economic development and growth continues really strong, we may have to address it in 15 years,” Green said.

The tribe will open bids from contractors sometime around the New Year and actual work will begin sometime in February or March. Construction is expected to take two years.

The struggle, Green said, will be finding a contractor experienced enough to handle to expansion.

“That is the real trick of getting someone to work for you,” Green said, adding that they don’t want any mishaps like a broken pipe delaying the project or causing a hazard.

The wastewater treatment plant will remain online throughout the construction.

“The plant will stay in operation right up into the time the new stuff comes on,” Green said.

The upgrades will include four new concrete tanks to hold the additional sewage as well as more charcoal filters to control the odor that the sewage emits. The plan also calls for new pipes to carry sewage along the Oconaluftee River to the wastewater treatment plant.

Workers have already started laying 20,000 feet of a 36-inch diameter sewer line leading to the plant. That project is expected to be complete by this summer.

The tribe will borrow part or all of the $28 million to cover the cost of both the expansion within the plant and some ancillary projects with the waterlines.

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