People living near Henderson's newest sewer plant will soon learn if the state-of-the-art facility passes the smell test.
They complained mightily in 2005 about potential odor and noise problems from the Southwest Water Reclamation Facility in the Serene Country Estates neighborhood, just off St. Rose Parkway south of the Las Vegas Beltway.
Back then, their noses were out of joint.
Today they are simply pointed toward a giant berm, sniffing around.
Neighbors in 2005 also fretted the plant would wreak havoc on property values, but the collapse of the housing market and subsequent recession got there first.
Six years after contentious public hearings and as the plant's Sept. 28 grand opening nears, city officials remain positive that residents will not in the least be bothered by foul odors or undue noise. That confidence is bolstered by technological advancements that make today's sewage treatment facilities smarter and smaller than ever before.
And while homeowners haven't ruled out taking some kind of action if the plant does emit unpleasant odors, they concede there are few remedies available -- all the more reason to hope that city officials are correct.
THE SEWER PLANT PROJECT
Plans to construct a satellite reclamation facility in southwest Henderson began in 1999 to deal with increased demand brought about by heavy growth in what then was one of the fastest growing cities in the nation.
The idea was to handle sewage treatment for 90,000 mostly new homes and produce treated water for golf courses and city parks from a closer location, thereby conserving potable water and saving energy costs.
Officials said the $94 million project will save the city in the long run. Dennis Porter, the city's director of utility services, believes millions of dollars will be saved in pumping costs.
But he also acknowledges it will be years before any savings are realized because fewer new users are hooking into the system. "This is going to take awhile to pay off," he said.
The Southwest Water Reclamation Facility sits on 20 acres, but most of that land was used to construct the buffering berm. The actual plant footprint is a relatively small 7 acres and has the capacity to treat 8 million gallons of sewage a day.
The plant uses membrane bioreactor technology and ultraviolet disinfection that takes the stuff you flush down the toilet -- or from your sink, washing machine, shower and garbage disposal -- and turns it into water that comes close to meeting federal Safe Drinking Water Act standards.
While you wouldn't want to drink it or wash your hair with it, this water is perfectly safe to reuse on golf courses, which Henderson already does, Porter said.
Henderson is the only city in Nevada that reclaims 100 percent of its wastewater. Those multiple millions of gallons land on all of the city's many private golf courses.
Porter said future uses could include watering most, if not all, of Henderson's 100 parks and the Boulder Highway corridor. A push to use such water to generate electricity is in its infancy.
But first, the water must be treated.
Technological marvels abound in the modern world, but not all of them have the sex appeal of, say, the wonder that is a smartphone. But how society cleans its dirty water is every bit a technical marvel as how society uses the phone.
Odors, both natural and human caused, are muted in large part because the treatment is conducted in an enclosed facility rather than the large open-air sewage-filled lagoons of earlier plants.
The key odor eliminators are activated carbon filters that trap gases and huge fans that pump fresh air into the main intake building, diluting the foul air.
"I'm extremely confident residents won't be bothered by odors," Porter said.
He acknowledges the perception that plants which treat human waste tend to stink -- and stink bad -- has been hard to change.
"We don't use open-air lagoons like we did 30 years ago," Porter said. "Now those stank, and those are what people think of when they think of wastewater plants. It's easy to understand why the neighbors' were concerned."
RESIDENTS POSITIVE BUT WARY
The neighbors said they are pleased with the city's efforts to date, particularly the construction of a landscaped berm that hides the facility from view. But they're also wary.
"We had major concerns," said homeowner Cecilia Nowak, one of the more outspoken opponents back in 2005 who, like others, has taken a wait-and-see approach. "We were assured there would be no smell and that they would maintain the landscaping."
Nowak noted the first construction at the site was the berm, which features a walking path, multicolored rock landscaping and native vegetation, a gesture that she said went a long way in calming fears. "They do need to maintain it and replace dead plants," she said. "But it's nice."
"We fought it as hard as we could," said Kelly Gardner, who has lived in the area for 15 years. "We had no clue this would happen and it was upsetting. Nobody wants a sewer plant next door."
Gardner is philosophical.
"They told us the smell wouldn't be noticeable," he said. "But whether it smells is yet to be seen. In the end, we know the city had to put it somewhere and that just happened to be by us."
Serene Country Estates has two personalities, according to Gardner. There are the newer, bigger, opulent homes mixed in with more modest houses built about 35 years ago. Most of the large homes on large lots don't even use the city's water and sewer service. They are on wells and septic tanks.
Gardner has no idea what impact the water treatment plant might have on property values, because the market has already been hammered by the deep recession and housing meltdown. Homes that used to go for about $2 million now sell for about $900,000. Still, he doesn't think the neighborhood is immune.
"There's a bit of a stigma when you live next to a sewer plant, and there's no doubt property values will go down when this one opens, but the negative impact of the national economy is so bad, who knows how to measure what the plant opening does?" Gardner said.
"It is what it is, and it could be worse. That could be a big crazy casino."
Earl Hodge is the longtime leader of a neighborhood group. The organization isn't quite as powerful or invasive as a homeowner's association, but it isn't entirely without teeth.
He played a pivotal role at the public outreach meetings and, like his neighbors, his anger has subsided and now he is guardedly hopeful.
Hodge said odors "remain a concern," but he also is convinced the plant is as high-tech as it can be.
"I personally think the city has done a real good job on this," he said. "A real professional job, and now we just have to hope they look after the neighborhood's interest."
And while Hodge said a lawsuit probably would accomplish little, he promises the neighbors will not give up without a fight if the plant emits foul odors.
Contact reporter Doug McMurdo at email@example.com or 702-224-5512.