Assistant City Engineer Enjoys Getting Her Hands Dirty

Ann Tonella-Howe could go toe-to-toe with Mike Rowe of "Dirty Jobs."

The next time a homeowner on the North End flushes a toilet, they can thank Ann Tonella-Howe.

A native of Seattle, Tonella-Howe got her civil engineering degree from the University of Washington and immediately went to work for the Washington state Department of Transportation (WDOT) coordinating utilities for the I-90 project. From there, she worked as the traffic operations engineer for the City of Bellevue and then moved on to project management. While working for the city of Shoreline, Tonella-Howe wearied of the commute, so when she heard of a job available on Mercer Island, she jumped at the chance.

She was hired in 2002 as a project manager overseeing capital projects, such as improving water lines, storm drains, sewer lines and other infrastructure for the City of Mercer Island. Her first job was to help get a sewer main in Lake Washington that runs from Proctors Landing up past The Roanoke replaced, because the pipes had gone ‘soft’ from years of water and silt erosion. “The problem was identified in 1985, when (Mercer Island) completed a long-term sewer plan, and realized they needed to put funds toward replacing the sewer system around the Island,” she said. “They found that we had asbestos cement pipes that were exposed with ground no longer covering it along the shoreline, and cement on the outside was decaying and getting soft inside and outside, so 1/2 mile of line had to be replaced, and soon.”

It wasn’t that the 7,000 feet of sewer main that needed replacing was too large or complex an undertaking, it was that the line had been installed in Lake Washington without any regulation or permits, something that wouldn’t be allowed today. “We had to engage all the agencies with an interest in Lake Washington and talk about ways of replacing the sewer line that would be eco-friendly,” Tonella-Howe said. “Plus we had to get all the permissions and permits and a feasibility study in place before we could proceed, which literally took years.”

Tonella-Howe was given three alternatives for replacing the sewer line: 1) Keep it in the lake, 2) Take it out of the Lake and install it on the shoreline, which is private property, and 3) Pull it out of the Lake, move it upland and pull the line up to the street system and follow that path to Lincoln Landing to connect it to the King County Sewer System.

“What we ended up doing was installing a new Ductile Iron pipe farther out in the Lake and connecting it to an existing pipe near the Roanoke that hooks up to Lincoln Landing and the King County Metro system, which takes sewage to a treatment plant in Renton.”

Problems arose, however, when seeking bids on the sewer line project in 2007. “The price far exceeded what we imagined,” said Tonella-Howe. “So we took a step back and had the project re-bid in 2008. We ended up with 2 contractors working the project starting in Jan. 2009, and we just finished it in late Oct., 2010.” One of the reasons it took that long, Tonella-Howe explained, is because the permitting agencies would only allow the contractors to dig in Lake Washington for the 3-4 months the salmon were not spawning there.

The old sewer main hugged the Mercer Island shoreline at only 3-4 feet out, but the new, larger capacity main was installed 30 feet out into the Lake and buried deep enough that there won’t be a problem with the line for at least another 100 years. “We got to cut the old line, clean it, flush the waste into the system (not out into the Lake), plug both ends, bury it and put spawning gravel down on the shoreline to promote the salmon habitat.” Tonella-Howe noted that the sewer line project and the Community Center at Mercer View were the biggest capital projects that the City of Mercer Island has undertaken in the last 20 years.

Next up for Tonella-Howe is installing a signal light at the SE 42nd crosswalk, which she says will take the better part of a year to complete. “Doing what we (city engineers) do is exciting because we work on projects that are like puzzle pieces, you have to make sure they all fit together  to have a successful outcome,” she said. “Mercer Island is changing as a community, and where you wanted to spend your (tax) money last year isn’t where it will be spent this year—but we’ve been fortunate, as city engineers, that we haven’t had to wait while the money was in flux, the City Council has been supportive of all our projects—Mercer Island is a good place to be.”


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