A long-imagined upgrade of San Mateo and Foster City’s wastewater treatment plant took a major step Wednesday when officials broke ground on a project to replace aging sewer infrastructure with an expanded facility.

As part of San Mateo’s $1 billion Clean Water Program, the effort to upgrade a decades-old wastewater treatment plant is one of several steps officials have taken in recent years to respond to a state mandate to upgrade the city’s sewer system and eliminate sewer overflows from entering the San Francisco Bay during heavy storms. Serving 170,000 residents in San Mateo, Foster City, the Crystal Springs County Sanitation District as well as portions of Hillsborough, Belmont and unincorporated San Mateo County, the existing wastewater treatment plant is operated by San Mateo and jointly owned and funded by San Mateo and Foster City/Estero Municipal Improvement District. The goal is to finish construction by 2024 and will be paid for in part by an approved increase in sewer rates.

Mayor Diane Papan acknowledged the efforts of the many officials gathered at the plant’s site just west of J. Hart Clinton Drive and largely surrounded by Detroit Drive to witness the groundbreaking some four years after the San Mateo City Council voted to establish the sewer modernization project. With updated technology and new sustainability measures, Papan expected the new wastewater treatment facility to serve those living near the San Francisco Bay years into the future.

“For centuries, local governments have treated waste,” she said. “It really is a fundamental duty to the survival of civilized society and servicing the community is going to happen in a very big and modern way with our new wastewater treatment plant.”

Papan credited U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, and other federal officials with supporting efforts to assemble funds for the Clean Water Program, which was approved for a $277 million loan guarantee from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Speier expressed appreciation to the federal agency for its investment in the program, noting the loan guarantee is expected to save San Mateo and Foster City some $50 million over the course of 30 years. Though she acknowledged some may wonder whether investing in such a costly initiative is worth it, Speier underscored the importance of the program’s goal to eliminate sewer overflows into the San Francisco Bay during heavy storms and ensure the region’s infrastructure can meet the needs of its growing population.

“It means that population growth can occur [and] the water flowing from this plant will be cleaner,” said Speier. “This project means that property values in San Mateo and Foster City will not be adversely impacted by inadequate public infrastructure.”

In addition to the first major overhaul of the Detroit Drive wastewater treatment plant since the 1970s, the Clean Water Program also includes improvements to the system’ conveyance with the goal of achieving environmental benefits and eliminating the discharge of raw sewage into the Bay, which occurs during extreme storms when the plant’s capacity is maxed out.

Foster City Mayor Sam Hindi looked to the effort to help both San Mateo and Foster City move closer to meeting sustainability goals and expressed his confidence in the comprehensive plan developed to ensure the cities’ wastewater collection is responsibly upgraded with advanced technology. Because the project is slated to give Foster City the ability to supply recycled water to city-owned facilities, such as the Mariners Point Golf Center less than a mile from the site, the project stands to reduce the city’s potable water use, he said.

“I’m hopeful as we go in this direction, we will be able to meet our long-term sustainability goals, bringing a source of recycled water to our residents and city facilities while offsetting the use of potable water,” he said.

Eshoo also commended officials in collaborating to fulfill two major responsibilities of local, state and federal government, which she said are ensuring public health and public safety. Certified by the Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design program and designed to help make use of reclaimed water and compressed natural gas, the wastewater treatment plant upgrade is expected to better serve its residents with an eye toward future challenges, she noted.

“This project is essential to not only protect public health … but to upgrade … and to anticipate the changes we need to be prepared for,” she said. “We know we have to prepare for climate change, we know we have to prepare for the expanding population in our region and this project does all of that.”

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