WILLMAR - An update at the Northeast Water Treatment Plant in Willmar, run by Willmar Municipal Utilities, has been delayed, perhaps for the foreseeable future.

"There are a number of reasons to recommend the delay," Utilities Commissioner Brendan MacDonald said during discussion at a recent Willmar Municipal Utilities Commission meeting.

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Reasons for the delay include significantly rising costs and the possibility of a change in regulations that could impact what kind of project the utilities would need to do.

The Utilities' Planning Commission recommended delaying the project and the delay was then approved unanimously by the Municipal Utilities Commission.

A project at the treatment plant has been in the planning stages since 2012, when the utilities started looking for ways to improve the process to filter ammonia, iron and manganese from the city's water. The original estimate for such a project was approximately $8.5 million. However as the years and scope of the project changed, the estimate rose, topping out at around $14 million in November 2018.

The utilities started looking at ways to use the plant updates to also meet new federal mandates for the levels of salty discharge in the wastewater, caused in large part by home water softeners and some industrial processes like food processing.

Grant funding had been pursued, but Willmar Municipal Utilities was turned down because it could not guarantee the plant updates would meet the mandates. The only way to do that would be to soften the water before it reaches homes, a project that would cost almost $90 million.

Willmar Municipal Utilities is hoping that the salty discharge requirements will change before any project at the plant has to be completed, yet another reason to delay any work.

The delay will also give the utilities the chance to save up money for the project, and avoid having to bond for the project.

The commission has also approved a rate study for this year, the first since 2014. The plant project will be added to that study, to determine how much rates will need to increase to meet the utilities' current and future needs.

"It has been several years since we had a rate study. It would be beneficial," Commissioner Nathan Weber said during the June 10 discussion.

Even without the updates to the water plant, MacDonald said Willmar Municipal Utilities has the capacity to meet Willmar's current water needs.

"The current plant is able to meet the water distribution needs of Willmar for three to four years. There is no urgent need to act now," MacDonald said.

Willmar has two water treatment plants - one on the northeast side of town, one on the southwest.

In 2018 the city used approximately 1.4 billion gallons of water. Usage has held steady since 2011.

Willmar Municipal Utilities General Manager John Harren said the utilities would continue to keep an eye on the city's water needs, and if there are changes, the plant project could end up in front of the commission again. Housing projects that are coming to Willmar are already being counted as part of the city's water usage. What could trigger the project coming back is a major industrial user.

"As we speak today, there is no wet industry, or large-volume water user, industrial customer that is looking at Willmar right now, that we are aware of," Harren said, but if that changes, Willmar Municipal Utilities will need to make decisions.