Littleton works toward nation’s first ‘smart sewer’ treatment plant

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Mass Innovations, From The Beacon, Summer 2017
 
Like countless towns across the country, Littleton is tasked with building out the wastewater infrastructure needed to support economic development. But Littleton is believed to be the only town in the nation doing so by planning and designing a so-called smart sewer treatment plant that reuses water while also generating energy that can be sold or used to heat and cool surrounding buildings.
 
Littleton Town Meeting this spring approved $450,000 for the planning and design work for such a plant, called a Community Water and Energy Resource Center, or CWERC.
 
A CWERC uses the latest technology to reclaim water to be used for lawn watering, toilets and other uses, while replenishing the aquifer beneath the town and providing groundwater protection. The treatment process gives off methane that can be used to generate electricity, while the thermal energy created during the process can be used for heating buildings. The solid waste output can be turned into fertilizer.
 
Unlike traditional sewer systems, the plant would be an opt-in model, meaning that only property owners within the designated area that use the plant would be required to pay for its operation and maintenance. Town Administrator Keith Bergman said the town plans to target a “smart growth” area like Littleton Common.
 
“The town is currently updating a feasibility study for a smart sewer project for Littleton Common, where routes 2A, 110 and 119 converge at Exit 31 off I-495, which has been a focus of many of the town’s economic development efforts,” Bergman said in an email.
 
The genesis of the project dates back 16 years, when the town’s Water Department and Board of Health raised concerns to the Board of Selectmen about the diminished aquifer and well water replenishment, along with a high concentration of nitrates in the downtown area. In 2010, the town established a Littleton Common Sewer Feasibility Committee, focusing on a wastewater solution for the downtown area.
 
“Littleton Common includes the traditional village center, IBM’s Mass Lab facility — its largest software development campus in North America, with more than 2,000 employees — and Sam Park & Company’s The Point development, with restaurants, retail and a hotel,” Bergman said in an email.
 
The committee worked with the Charles River Watershed Association on a sewer feasibility study and unanimously recommended the “smart sewer” solution. Town Meeting approved $252,000 last year for a Littleton Common Sewer strategic plan and $200,000 on May 1 this year for financial evaluation, site selection options, and preliminary design plans.
 
In addition to increasing the sustainability of Littleton’s clean water supply, the smart sewer system will reduce the nitrate burden downtown and reduce methane gas released to the environment.
 
The Charles River Watershed Association released a report this spring calling for a network of CWERCs to eventually replace regional treatment plants.
 
Bergman said building what may be the nation’s first CWERC represents the kind of economic development that matches the town’s values: A revitalized Littleton Common, with more than $2 million in new annual tax revenue, and a sustainable and environmentally friendly approach.
 
For more information, call Town Administrator Keith Bergman at (978) 540-2460.