Sustainability: Removing Ammonia


Ammonia is both manufactured and created naturally. It serves a variety of purposes that are widely considered to be positive, including within fertilizers and cleaning products, and plays a role in the creation of amino acids.

One part nitrogen and three parts hydrogen (NH3), ammonia’s dark side is that exposure to it can cause problems for humans’ health. The chemical “is irritating and corrosive,” reports the New York State Department of Health. “Exposure to high concentrations of ammonia in air causes immediate burning of the nose, throat and respiratory tract.”

So it’s a good idea to keep uncontrolled ammonia out of our environment, which brings us to the latest news from the Sacramento Regional County Sanitation District (Regional San).

This summer, Regional San announced that it had upgraded its wastewater treatment facility to the extent that it now removes more than 99 percent of ammonia from the water it releases into the Sacramento River and that is used for landscape and agricultural irrigation.

That removal is accomplished by a project within a project: the completion of the Biological Nutrient Removal project, a major component of Regional San’s broader, $1.7 billion EchoWater Project.

Regional San’s former general manager, Prabhakar Somavarapu, says in a press release that the BNR project “benefits the ecosystem and millions of Californians who rely on the Sacramento River as a water source—a clear demonstration of our ongoing commitment to environmental stewardship.”

The upgraded treatment facility is demonstrably large, for sure. It is said to be the size of 18 football fields. On typical days, it handles 130 million gallons of wastewater, but can crank that up to 330 million gallons during the wet (we hope) winter months.

“The BNR site consists of eight large basins lined with thousands of tubes that release oxygen into the wastewater,” explains materials from Regional San. “The oxygen supports bacteria, which remove most of the organic matter and nearly all of the ammonia from the wastewater.”

Regional San’s quest for improving the quality of wastewater release stems from a 2010 order by the state of California that the Sacramento facility be substantially improved. Most of the EchoWater Project funding, some $1.6 billion of it, has been provided in the form of low-interest financing from the state’s Clean Water State Revolving Fund.

EchoWater is expected to be completed on time, in 2023. For more information, visit