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Pastoral woodland in Newark fed by Berlin wastewater

(Oct. 24, 2014) More than 600 sprinklers sputter thousands of gallons of water into the woods at Five Mile Branch Road, in Newark, each day.

A series of more than 600 sprinklers sputter treated wastewater into the woods at Berlin’s Five Mile Branch Spray Irrigation Facility, in Newark. The trees absorb the wastewater, which would otherwise flow into local waterways, and will eventually pour money back into the operation when they are harvested and replanted. (Clara Vaughn | Ocean City Today)

It isn’t a water-wasting operation, but a sponge for Berlin’s treated effluent that would otherwise flow from the wastewater treatment plant into local streams and other waterways.

“It makes sense,” said Jane Kreiter, Berlin’s director of water resources and public works, during the Five Mile Branch Spray Irrigation Facility’s open house earlier this month.

“There’s a finite amount of water. We might as well clean up what we have and use it.”

Some visitors at the open house were surprised by the scene they found: a lagoon, woodland paths and even a roving flock of guinea fowl.

But it isn’t the only site of its kind. Berlin has been dispersing its treated wastewater in the woods, where trees soak it up, for almost 20 years at another plot in Libertytown.

Combined with the Five Mile Branch site, which opened about a year ago, the town can pump 750,000 mgd — million of gallons of water per day — into the woods making Berlin’s Maryland’s largest spray irrigation operation, said Jamey Latchum, the town’s wastewater superintendent.

Before the town opened its two spray irrigation sites, its wastewater flowed into Hudson Branch, which drains into Trappe Creek and eventually Newport Bay, listed as a stressed body of water by local environment group Maryland Coastal Bays.

Even treated, wastewater contains nitrogen and phosphorus, nutrients that can boost algae blooms and lead to problems in waterways. But the spray irrigation sites only spread as much water as the trees there can absorb, Kreiter said, meaning the plants — not waters — absorb the nutrients.

At a cost of $3.5 million, funded by the Maryland Department of the Environment, Water Quality Financing Administration and the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development’s Community Development Block Grant, the new spray irrigation center wasn’t cheap.

“There was a cost associated with it, but at the end of the day, we’re doing the right thing. You either pay now or you pay later,” Kreiter said.

“We have to protect our coastal bays. Our economy depends on them,” she added.

Ten onsite monitoring wells safeguard the land at Five Mile Branch, tracking everything from chloride, nitrogen and phosphorus to fecal coliform in groundwater, she said.

“We had baseline data before any construction and the numbers have already improved,” Kreiter said, adding that both upstream and downsteam wells are in place.

How it all works looks less complicated than it is. More than 600 sprinklers line a series of small paths in the woods at the Five Mile Branch site, where they spray Berlin’s treated wastewater.

The quality of the water that’s released there surpasses health department standards, Kreiter said, but it certainly doesn’t start that way.

It originates in the gutters, sinks, tubs and toilets of Berlin.

Wastewater goes to the town’s recently upgraded sewage treatment plant, where a series of “bugs” — bacteria, rotifers and other helpful organisms — clean the ammonia, nitrates and other undesirables, Latchum said. Then, water travels through a fine filter to remove floating particles and the flows under a UV light to neutralize the “bugs” — about a six-hour process, he said.

The treated water travels through underground pipes nine miles to the Libertytown site, a 1,000-acre facility. From there, it makes a further six-mile subterranean trek to Five Mile Branch, where it joins other treated water in a 30-million gallon lagoon.

At the press of a button, two pumps send water from the lagoon surging to the sprinklers that line about 60 acres of woods, Latchum said.

This time of year, when plants are at peak productivity, the Five Mile Branch facility pumps nearly all the water it receives into the woods. But during the winter, when trees are dormant, the large lagoon “fills up pretty quick,” he said.

“This time of year, this is what we want to see — it’s mostly empty,” he said on the tour.

Like the Liberytown site, Five Mile Brach will eventually become ripe for tree harvesting, helping pump some money back into the operation.

“There’s revenue from something that would’ve gone down the drain,” Kreiter said.

While some neighbors opposed the spray system, citing its long distance from Berlin and potential to attract geese and their various problems, including disease, Kreiter said it’s more a matter of educating the public.

“People are afraid of the ‘ick’ factor. Everyone thinks spray irrigation is great until it’s in your backyard,” she said.

However, the goal is to improve water quality — ultimately a good thing.

As to why other municipalities, such as Ocean City, don’t follow suit, she said that lack of suitable land to sponge up high volumes of water and the associated costs are the major blocks.

As for as Berlin, though, the Five Mile Branch site has the capacity to spray even more than it does — about 200 of its 300 acres are unused, Latchum said.

Spraying the full site would take a lot more manpower, as two employees are already there most days maintaining nearly 100 miles of paths, he said.

Still, Latchum was hard-pressed to name any pitfalls of Berlin’s spray system for dispersing its wastewater.

After a pause, he added, “The biggest problem we have is ticks.”

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