Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski clambered aboard an excavator in drying bed No. 7 of North Salt Lake’s Water Reclamation Facility on Tuesday and ceremoniously deposited the first load of broken-up concrete into a readied dump truck.

The event marked the official beginning of construction on the largest public utilities project in Salt Lake City history outside the airport: a $528 million wastewater treatment facility.

“Most of us take for granted the vast amount of technical know-how and infrastructure that is required to treat and process our waste," Biskupski said. "We flush and, ‘poof,’ it’s gone and we think nothing more about it.”

But city leaders and staff have to pay attention to the system and know that the 55-year-old treatment plant now in use is growing more and more obsolete and, said Biskupski, “it’s truly time to say goodbye.”

The future treatment plant is designed to comply with updated water quality requirements that must be met by January 2025, and to construct a modern, sustainable facility.

This project will take an estimated six years to complete, during which current operations will remain in use.

“We’re replacing the water treatment plant to continue to be good stewards of the Great Salt Lake, where our treated wastewater is discharged," said Laura Briefer, director of public utilities for the city.

Ahead of the groundbreaking, the federal Environmental Protection Agency invited Salt Lake City to apply for funding. Briefer said that if granted, a loan of up to $355 million from the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA), would help cover a good share of the cost.

“After looking at the financial strategy, we couldn’t not apply,” Briefer said later.

Salt Lake City’s is one of 38 projects the EPA has invited for application.

If the loan is granted, the deal would ensure the project improves water quality and meets new standards for nutrient removal, which are a culprit for many water quality issues. Nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus can act like fertilizer when too many are added to bodies of water. This spawns an excessive growth of algae and creates issues for water bodies — in this case, the Great Salt Lake.

Along with meeting the updated requirements, the new plant will adhere to seismic codes, something the existing plant does not do, said Jamey West, city water reclamation facility manager. It also would feature sustainable technology and a decreased footprint from 75 to 45 acres.

The updated facility will also improve the quality of life for the nearby Rose Park community by eliminating odor associated with the drying beds in use at the current plant. The switch will be to a mechanical, contained dewatering mechanism.

“We do understand that a new facility brings new challenges,” West said. “There will be new technologies and new equipment that some of us have never seen before and, much less, operated in the past.”

West says that staff will undergo training to ensure confidence in beginning operation at the new facility, but that’s a few years away. The initial challenge is to secure operations of the current, aging facility while the future plant is built onsite.

“Right now, we treat 30- to 33 million gallons on average every single day. Water doesn’t stop coming in. It’s truly critical that we treat it,” West said, adding that employees of the facility work 24/7 to make sure the operation keeps running smoothly.

“We want to incorporate new engagement with the public,” West said. “And, we want to emphasize the educational component. We do tours now, but we want to have elements that help educate where we get our water from.”