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Back to drawing board for Willmar water treatment upgrade

Erica Dischino / Tribune file photo A planned improvement project at Willmar's Northeast Water Treatment Plant was estimated to cost about $8.5 million and now looks like it will cost around $14 million. Willmar Municipal Utilities will go back to the drawing board to address ammonia levels at the plant.1 / 2
Erica Dischino / Tribune file photo A planned improvement project at Willmar's Northeast Water Treatment Plant was estimated to cost about $8.5 million and now looks like it will cost around $14 million. Willmar Municipal Utilities will go back to the drawing board to address ammonia levels at the plant.2 / 2

WILLMAR — Willmar Municipal Utilities must re-evaluate its plans for an upgrade to the Northeast Water Treatment Plant following some sticker shock. The project, which was estimated to cost about $8.5 million, now looks it could cost around $14 million.

"We have taken a step back," said Joel Braegelman, water and heating supervisor.

Braegelman and General Manager John Harren gave the Municipal Utilities Commission an update on the water treatment plant at the Nov. 26 meeting.

In a later interview with the West Central Tribune, Braegelman explained that the original $8.5 million price tag was mostly for updates to the filtration system to better remove ammonia, iron and manganese from the water in order to maintain the high quality of Willmar's drinking water.

The massive increase in the project's cost came when the utilities started to look at ways to meet new federal regulations regarding chlorides, or salty discharge, in wastewater, most of which comes from home water softeners or is added through industrial processes such as food processing.

The increased cost did not become known until after Willmar Municipal Utilities began the final design of the project. Also, the original $8.5 million estimate was based on numbers at least three years old, Harren said in an interview. Costs usually increase as time passes.

The re-imagined Northeast Water Treatment Plant project would have allowed the utilities to pump more of the city's water from that plant instead of the southwest plant. The northeast plant has softer water, and it was hoped that fact would lead to a reduction in the amount of salt being added to the water from homes.

"We were hoping this was going to be an answer," Braegelman said in the interview.

Another blow to the project was the news that Willmar Municipal Utilities will not receive grant funds for the project at this time. The utilities and the city of Willmar had applied for a $7 million point source implementation grant from the Minnesota Public Facilities Authority and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. However, Willmar's project scored second to the lowest among all the grant applications.

"What they were looking for was a guarantee that we would be compliant" regarding the salty discharge mandates, Braegelman told the commission during its recent meeting. "We can't give them the guarantee."

The only way to guarantee Willmar would be compliant is to soften the water before it arrives in homes. That was found to be cost-prohibitive when the utilities was researching possible projects for the treatment plant. Such a project could cost around $90 million, Harren told the Tribune.

While the utilities now must go back to the drawing board for the project, updates at the plant are needed.

"The ammonia in the water, we will eventually have to do" something about as Willmar's population continues to grow, Braegelman said.

Braegelman said the utilities has been going over its options, as well as meeting with its biggest water customers to see if there are ways they can help reduce the salty discharge.

"Or to see if water softening is our best option," Braegelman said.

Five years ago, the city was given a variance which gave it 20 years to meet those requirements. There are still 15 years left.

"Time is on our side," Braegelman said.

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