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Built in 1831, London Bridge was falling down by 1962. To make way for a new and bigger bridge, London sold its famous bridge to Robert McCulloch of chain saw fame, who had it disassembled stone by stone and rebuilt in his newly created desert oasis: Lake Havasu City, Ariz. Today, the resort town is halfway through its 11-year, $450 million conversion from septic tanks to a citywide wastewater treatment system. Photo: William D. Palmer Jr.
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Bullhead City relies on the Colorado River, seen here in the distance, for water and recreation. Photo: City of Bullhead City

All of Bullhead City's septic tanks were left in place, punctured to render them inoperable, and then filled with concrete slurry. Removing the tanks was unnecessary, and in some cases impossible, since patios and even the occasional family room had been built over the tank.

In Lake Havasu, separate crews do each part of the conversion. The pavement milling crew arrives first; then the mainline is installed, pressure-tested, and inspected with video cameras. Another crew then connects the laterals to the property line and then another makes the connection to the septic tank, which is backfilled and disabled.

A restoration crew is then sent in, and using preconstruction photos, attempts to make the property look just like it did before construction—or better.

The city also is redoing the water lines, a large source of water loss, from the mains to the meters. “Since we had to tear up the road anyway, we can tap the main and run new copper services with minimal added cost,” says AMEC vice president Phil Turner.

Thus, Lake Havasu City is not only tightening up its water supply system, it's capturing and reusing the treated effluent that used to escape into the ground from the septic tanks. All of this is greatly extending its water supply, which will be key to fulfilling its aggressive growth plans.

Finding Funding

Although federal and state funding is contributing to the projects, most of the financial burden falls onto the cities and their citizens.

Lake Havasu City chose to borrow, so the investment is being spread out among all residents. Bullhead City has a relatively weak tax base, so issuing bonds would have been difficult.

“There's no way we could have borrowed the money,” said Agrawal. “That would have killed our streets and parks.”

And unlike Lake Havasu City, Bullhead City already had about 2000 customers on sewers. Charging them would amount to double-dipping. Therefore, only the benefiting property owners are paying, and only their actual cost: for SID1 it was $5000 to $6000; for SID3, up to $13,000.

Through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Water State Revolving Fund, residents can pay their assessment (averaging $11,000 per connection for SID3, including all on-lot work) in cash or finance it over 20 years at 3% interest. If that's still too difficult, money is available through a federal community development block grant.