WILLMAR - The proposed project at the Northeast Water Treatment Plant in Willmar has been through a few different variations since Willmar Municipal Utilities started looking at possible upgrades and improvements to the plant in 2012. Now, the Municipal Utilities Commission has approved entering into a contract with Carollo Engineering to begin the final design process for the estimated $8.5 million project.

"We are going to take a step forward," said Utilities Water and Heating Supervisor Joel Braegelman.

The project will update the plant's filter system to a biological process which will remove three contaminants found in Willmar's aquifer water - ammonia, iron and manganese. Currently, the plant's manganese greensand process removes only iron and manganese. The new process will do a better job of removing those, along with taking out ammonia.

"It will maintain the water quality the community has come to expect," Braegelman said.

The design and bid process will take about a year, with construction possibly starting in the second half of 2019. Construction will take approximately two years, Braegelman said.

"It is quite a project," said Utilities Purchasing Manager Kevin Marti.

Funding for the project will partly come from user rates. The 5 percent rate increase implemented this January will be followed by a second 5 percent rate hike in January 2019.

"There is the potential for additional rate increase" following the next increase, Utilities General Manager John Harren said.

"We still have some of the lowest water rates in the state," Harren added.

When the utilities first started exploring the plant project, they were focused on ammonia reduction. Then word came down from the federal government that municipalities were going to have to reduce the amount of salty discharge in wastewater.

Most of the discharge is coming from home water softeners, which use salt to reduce the water's hardness.

"Our water is harder than most," Braegelman said.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency will begin requiring compliance for salty discharge by 2033. This gives municipalities several years to meet the requirement.

However, there isn't a cost-effective way to remove the salty discharge from water in the wastewater treatment process. Instead it might be better to provide softer water at the beginning.

The utilities looked at a water treatment plant project that would have included water softening before it arrives in homes but it was unaffordable.

However, the ammonia reduction project itself, when completed, could provide some assistance in dropping the salty discharge rates in the city because it will allow the city to utilize more of the naturally softer water that feeds the Northeast Plant.

Willmar's drinking water comes from two underground aquifers and they have different water qualities. Currently, the majority of the city's water comes from the Southwest Treatment Plant, which is harder, but has lower ammonia rates. The Northeast Plant on the other hand is naturally softer though has higher ammonia rates.

Once the Northeast Plant project is complete and the ammonia levels drop, the utilities will pipe the naturally softer water from the Northeast plant to more customers. The hope is to draw 60 percent or more of the city's water from the Northeast plant following the project and using the Southwest plant less.

"The residents will be able to dial back the amount of salt they use in their softeners," Harren said, because the water will already be softer.