Driving along Hwy. 79 in Round Rock, it is hard to miss the rapidly evolving construction on America's largest indoor water park. Cranes dot the skyline, and bulldozers continue to turn dirt as 975 hotel rooms, a 200,000-square-foot convention center, restaurants and more take shape.

On the eastern border of the 350-acre Kalahari Resorts & Conventions site, the city of Round Rock is preparing to manage a behemoth project of its own.

“This project is humongous,” said Michael Thane, Round Rock’s director of utilities. “It’s going to cost approximately $100 million, which is the largest single dollar amount for any project the city of Round Rock has ever managed.”

Beginning in spring 2020, the Brushy Creek Regional Wastewater System Treatment Plant will undergo a three-year expansion to increase capacity by 40%. Expansion plans include installing state-of-the-art equipment to treat sewage at the plant, including odor-control technology and advanced computer systems to prevent wastewater spills, said Francisco Vicent, utilities and environmental services assistant director at the plant.

While Round Rock is managing the entire project, the city will foot just 12% of the bill, Thane said. The plant is co-owned by the cities of Round Rock, Cedar Park and Austin, and the city of Leander will buy in as a fourth owner with the expansion. Each regional partner will pay a percentage of the expansion cost, based on the additional capacity needed to meet the demands of their growing population in the Brushy Creek Basin.

A regional approach

The Brushy Creek Basin includes a swath of North Austin—the Avery Ranch area—and parts of Cedar Park, Leander and Round Rock. A large interceptor pipe runs along the creek, Vicent said, and each city dumps sewage into the pipe as it flows in a southeasterly direction toward the wastewater treatment plant.

“For most cities in the state of Texas, the wastewater facility is going to be on the southeast corner,” Thane said. “You want to go with gravity, and the whole state of Texas drains toward the Gulf of Mexico.”

When the plant was built in 1987, Thane said the idea was to create a large regional plant rather than multiple, smaller plants along the creek.

“We didn’t want a bunch of package plants—small, little treatment plants all up and down Brushy Creek—from an environmental perspective,” he said. “That way, it all comes to one treatment center where you could potentially have problems, instead of having plants everywhere along the creek.”

A multimillion-dollar project to boost capacity at the plant is not money down the drain, Vicent said. It is a vital investment in the public health and environmental wellbeing of the rapidly growing cities in the Brushy Creek Basin.

“A centralized public collection system makes things a lot better,” Vicent said. “Our treatment facility keeps the water clean, which goes into Brushy Creek, which goes downstream, which impacts other communities.”

An aging facility

In October 2018, the city of Round Rock assumed daily operations of the wastewater treatment facility. In its first year as operator, the city has been responsible for a range of repairs and replacements for equipment at the 32-year-old facility.

“Over the past year we spent a lot of money replacing things that were probably not in the best of condition,” Thane said. “Now, we’re out here working on the plant every single day. We know this plant’s going to be here for 100 years. We’re not going to put a Band-Aid on anything that needs fixing.”

The state of equipment at the plant came to a fore June 23. That Sunday evening, while the plant was unstaffed, a power failure caused a sewage backup, Thane said. Untreated wastewater backed up through a manhole located on the southeast corner of the plant, near Brushy Creek. Between 8:10 and 9:40 p.m., 100,000 gallons of wastewater spilled into the creek.

“It was such a bad day,” Thane said. “That event just shows how important what we do is.”

The plant is now staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, Thane said. Computer systems have been upgraded, and old equipment has been replaced.

Since October 2018, the regional owners have chipped in a total of $575,000 for two new lift station pumps and motors along with the installation of new lighting around the plant.

Prior to Round Rock taking over ownership last year, the plant had changed hands a few times over the decades—operated by the Brazos River Authority and the Lower Colorado River Authority prior to that.

“When you have a third party operating it, they’re just trying to go year-to-year, trying to spend the least amount of money possible,” Thane said. “They met the requirements they needed to meet. They kept the plant running. It was just a different mentality.”

Expansion plans

The footprint of the facility is designed for a 40-million-gallon-per-day plant. After the expansion concludes in 2023, the plant will be able to handle 30 million gallons per day.

“What you see on the ground today is about half of the site’s total capacity,” Thane said. “We’ll almost mirror it, so to speak, with the expansion.”

According to population projects from Cedar Park, Leander and Austin, the expansion should take care of those cities’ wastewater needs for their ultimate build-out within the Brushy Creek Basin. Each city has other treatment plants in addition to the regional one located in Round Rock.

The expansion needs to be completed by December 2023 to stay ahead of population projections, Thane said.

“If all goes according to plan, we will start construction out here in May 2020,” he said. “It’s a three-year construction. That takes us to June 2023. And we’ve got until December 2023 to be ahead of the cities’ projections.”

One of the new technologies is odor-control monitoring. Sensors will be stationed at various places around the plant to be able to detect odors, Thane said. Staff can then adjust the treatment process to mitigate odors.

“If you look at the growth around here, we’re getting closed in,” he said. “Kalahari owns 350 acres, all the way to our border. So having a state-of-the-art ability to treat for and manage odors is of the utmost.”

A future expansion will bring the plant to full capacity at 40 million gallons per day, Thane said. The majority of that expansion is planned to meet the needs of Round Rock’s projected population growth.