Ten years of struggles finally leads to a sewer in Silver Springs

SILVER SPRINGS - Ten years seems like 100 years for visionaries in Silver Springs who see the community transforming into a self-sustaining commercial and industrial hub.

Ten years ago founders of the Economic Development Authority of Silver Springs said the lack of sewer service stood in the way of this central Lyon County town's future.

The authority attracted dozens of outside businesses eager to locate in Silver Springs. That is, until entrepreneurs asked about infrastructure.

"Oh, no sewer? See you!" was the answer often given.

A decade later the Silver Springs commercial district still has no sewer and thus little activity, though intense lobbying brought the town an ATM machine in 1994.

The new century, however, falls right in line for a new beginning in Silver Springs, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year with a population of about 6,500.

A festive groundbreaking ceremony this week launched construction on a $10.4 million sewer system that will initially serve about 1,000 homes in a 2.5-square-mile area mostly south of the Highway 50/Highway 95A intersection.

The wastewater treatment plant, able to treat 600,000 gallons of sewage a day, will take about a year to build once work formally starts about Jan. 25. At the same time, sewer lines will be installed in the streets.

In about a year, property owners may start connecting to the sewer. They will have 18 months to hook up. By mid-2002, all homes and business in central Silver Springs should have sewer service.

Then the economic growth envisioned throughout the 1990s should take hold, said Ray Johnson, project manager for the sewer project on behalf of the Silver Springs General Improvement District.

"I will predict in five years you will not recognize Silver Springs as you see it here," said Johnson, a key sewer backer since the beginning along with Hale Bennett, Dick Linderman, Chet Hillyard, John Holmes and Jim Snellings.

Bringing business to town launched sewer talk in 1990, but degrading water quality caused by failing septic systems spawned an unlikely team of local, county, state and federal people to put a sewer into the ground.

Most unlikely of all, the federal government played the lead role in bringing Silver Springs and Lyon County to the same table.

"Without the help of (U.S. Department of Agriculture) Rural Development and the Economic Development Administration, this project would not have happened," Johnson said. "That is probably the truest statement we could make."

Silver Springs didn't have enough money, and the Lyon County Commission for years resisted efforts to fund a sewer there.

USDA-Rural Development played a key role in taking a small town's dream and translating it into reality.

"It's a grassroots story of rural economic development in Silver Springs," said Sarah Mersereau, USDA-Rural Development's state director. "Then the environmental components came along."

USDA-Rural Development - formerly the Farmers Home Administration - supported Silver Springs' sewer project more than Lyon County five years ago. Mersereau chose to stick with Silver Springs even as the Lyon County Commission twice refused to form a Silver Springs General Improvement District in 1994 and 1996 to allow sewer work to start.

"They were not going to desert us," Johnson said. "Sarah stuck her neck out."

USDA-Rural Development supplies low-interest loan and grant programs for housing, business and infrastructure projects in rural communities. The agency has supplied a $1.2 million grant for the Silver Springs sewer plus a $5.3 million loan with another $3 million loan possible.

The federal Economic Development Administration has committed $1.5 million for sewer construction.

"The community had already taken as many steps as they could without much outside help," Mersereau said. "That was very motivating for us; that they had worked so hard by themselves. We were the enabler and catalyst. We connected the dots."

Mersereau had Mike Holm, the department's rural development coordinator, find ways to pay for the sewer. For instance, Holm used a bit of creativity to use the Rural Housing 504 grant and loan program to help low-income senior citizens pay their sewer costs.

The 504 program is designed for home improvements such as a new roof, new furnace or new electrical system, but Holm's investigations determined the program may be used for capital projects like a sewer, Mersereau said.

Mersereau also brought in Abby Johnson from the non-profit Rural Community Assistance Corp. to smooth out the strife between Silver Springs and Yerington.

"What we saw was there was a tremendous interest in the sewer project in Silver Springs and a disconnect with the county," Abby Johnson said. "Historically, there was a distrust of the county. It was important to get the community to show that they are organized to make an effort. Then the county got more involved. Gradually, the county has taken more responsibility."

More bluntly, Johnson said three new county commissioners elected in 1996 swung the vote in favor of forming an improvement district in 1998 in the third effort.

The sewer project needed the district to become a reality. The improvement district, administered by county commissioners, has authority over the sewer's design, construction and operation. The improvement district also imposes the sewer tax that will pay off the USDA loans during 40 years.

Each parcel owner, vacant or developed, is assessed $325 a year for the first 20 years and $126 for the second 20 years. They may also pay the full $4,922.50 assessment up front. The tax was first assessed in July 1999.

Silver Springs may initially have looked to a sewer to attract business. As the 1990s advanced, however, environmental demands left Silver Springs with no option but to build a sewer.

The Nevada Division of Environmental Protection determined the Silver Springs water basin can support no more than 80 septic tanks and leach field per square mile. Yet the area within the general improvement district has 500 septic systems per square mile.

"We have not approved any subdivisions in the Silver Springs area for several years because of the high density of septic systems in the area," James Williams, former chief of the division's Bureau of Water Pollution Control, wrote in a March 1999 letter.

Beyond growth questions, failing systems forced the closure of one of the five wells in Silver Springs in 1993 because of high nitrate readings. Clean water standards allow for a maximum of 10 parts per million in nitrates and the Idaho Street well in 1993 had readings of 18.9 parts per million, Johnson said.

Nitrates are a nitrogen oxygen compound converted from ammonium and ammonia byproducts in wastewater.

Nitrate levels since then dropped enough to reopen the Idaho well, but a second well last year gave a nitrate reading of 8.5 parts per million.

"If this trend were to continue there is little doubt it would be just a matter of time before the situation would pose a threat to individual's health a welfare," Jonathan Palm, the state's manager of public health engineer, wrote in January 1999.


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