Vacuum Sewers – Engineered Solution for a Multitude of Problems

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Courtesy of Water Environment Federation (WEF)

ABSTRACT
The City of Albuquerque is celebrating its 300th anniversary in the 2006. The city itself has been growing at a very rapid rate, expanding the urban boundaries into the rural countryside. This urban expansion has been most apparent in the river valleys of the Rio Grande, where groundwater is shallow and topography is very flat. As the urbanization of the valley areas north and south of the City increased, the density of septic systems increased proportionally and began to affect the groundwater quality. This would eventually affect thousands of residents that individually and municipally relied on groundwater as a drinking water source. The New Mexico legislature challenged the City and County to “sewer the valley by 2000”, and eventually provided an initial $25 million in funding to begin the work. This was the beginning of a program which is only now nearing completion and will provide sewer service outside the City limits to thousands of additional residents.

Due to the groundwater and flat terrain conditions in the North and South Valleys, alternative collection systems were considered in lieu of traditional gravity sewers. While gravity sewers were considered the first choice, vacuum sewers were chosen as the alternative of choice when gravity sewers were not viable. In total, nine vacuum systems are installed or are under construction, capable of serving over 8,000 residences. The use of vacuum sewers has solved many problems in the design and operation/maintenance of sewer systems in the North/South Valleys. Where streets in traditional housing developments have adequate room for subsurface utilities construction and maintenance, this is not the case in the valley developments. In many locations, only 15’ of width is provided for access and utilities including water, gas, electric, phone and CATV. The addition of a sewer within these existing utilities was a most problematic issue where deep gravity sewers would require removal/replacement of all utilities.

INTRODUCTION
Think of Albuquerque and images of spectacular western panoramas and Native American culture come to mind. Located in the Rio Grande Valley, the city is known for its Southwestern art and the annual International Balloon Fiesta, where hundreds of hot air balloons gracefully drift across the New Mexico sky. Life in Albuquerque is a lot like the Balloon Fiesta, beautiful and serene.

The natural beauty of Albuquerque was in jeopardy in the late 1980s. Population in the unincorporated areas of Bernalillo County had been steadily growing for years. The farms and ranches that used to dot the countryside had been replaced by several small communities. Most of these homes were beyond the reach of the city’s services, so the families there relied on septic tanks and well water. Over time, a number of these septic tank systems began to fail, increasing the amount of sewer discharge into the valley’s groundwater. By 1990 the situation had gotten serious.

The issue reached the statehouse level in the early 1990s and in 1993 the state legislature allocated $12 million to address the problem. There was, however, an important stipulation; the money had to be encumbered within 12 months, an incredibly tight timeline for a major public works project. An additional $15 million was allocated in 1994. The legislative mandate to sewer the valleys had begun.

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