Assembly works to keep water flowing this summer

Ahead of the coming summer, the Borough Assembly held a special meeting on April 6 to get an update on the city's water situation.

Last summer Wrangell entered a state of emergency for a month, after Public Works reported its reserves of treated water were threateningly low. Once water is treated and filtered at the municipal plant, it is stored in two 424,000-gallon tanks before distribution. Due to the position of each tank's outflow about 130,000 gallons are considered unusable, effectively limiting overall capacity to 718,000 gallons.

Due to its filtration methods unsuitability to the local water supply, the plant has often struggled to meet peak demand during the summers. Generally the problem has been low water levels in its two feeder reservoirs, but in 2016 cumulative problems with the plant's four slow sand filters had caught up to the extent that production had been cut back significantly.

Silt and sediment build-up occurring in the filters is supposed to be dredged out in layers over time, with silica-based sand added to replace the lost layers. Balking at the cost of replacing the sand as needed – in the hundreds of thousands of dollars – the city instead found ways around the problem, and as such the filter system is almost unusable. In its 18 years of operation, the plant's sand has still never been changed out.

"We're not doing what we should be doing," Public Works director Amber Al-Haddad summed up to the Assembly in her report last week. "This sand should not be here."

In a financial summary, finance director Lee Burgess explained it would cost $830,000 to get the new silica bought and delivered to the city dock, and another $200,000 to replace the old material in the filters. The city's water fund only has about $280,000 available to it currently, due to rolling costs related to new ozone generators the plant needed that were acquired last year.

While money from the general reserves fund could be tapped for the emergency appropriation, Burgess explained that could complicate an ongoing application with the Department of Agriculture for a loan to build a new water plant. The new treatment plant design would be based on a successful test of a dissolved air filtration sample plant conducted last summer, with the full facility estimated to cost around $8.5 million.

This was about $2.5 million more than expected last year, due to the need to construct a new building to house the facility. Included in the price were the additional inspections, contingencies, and design costs involved in construction.

Tapping the general fund for the sand replacement project would raise questions, Burgess explained, and could shift more of the cost share of the larger plant replacement project onto the borough. Even if funds were "loaned" from the general fund, it could take a long time to repay. Burgess explained that a discussed increase in water rates by five percent would only yield $25,000 per year for the city, taking two or more decades to repay a loan from the general fund for the sand.

"Boy, that's going to be a long haul," observed Assembly member Patty Gilbert.

Other less expensive work-arounds were discussed, such as altering the plant's roughing filters and cleaning the current sand as well as possible. But Assembly member David Powell questioned whether they were avoiding the obvious solution.

"We know it'll work if we replace the sand," he said. Regardless of the other loan process, he felt the time to act was now. "I read the same thing. To me this is basically an emergency."

A major factor is time. If ordered now, Al-Haddad said the sand may not be installed in time for the coming summer season, when seafood production and related activity steps up demand. But without it, it was highly uncertain how long production could keep up. Given increasing demand and the aging plant's diminishing efficiency, something would have to be done, she explained. Even building a new plant would not help in the meantime, with estimates for funding and construction suggesting a three- to five-year process.

That brought Powell back to the question of the new sand.

"If we replace this sand now, would it get us through the next five or seven years?" he asked the head of Public Works.

"I think it would get us through," Al-Haddad replied.

With a regularly scheduled meeting planned for Tuesday, the Assembly agreed to mull the decision over the weekend while Al-Haddad determined whether an alternative work-around for the coming summer would be doable.

She will also bring back a revised water shortage management plan, based on feedback given on a draft during the meeting. The plan would set out a guided response for city staff based on water levels in the two treated reserve tanks, divided into four stages of urgency.

The plan was fairly comprehensive, not just listing the measures to gauge a shortage by but also recommended enforcement mechanisms and means for resolving disputes.

"I have a little concern that it's a little too detailed and long for enforcement," noted Assembly member Julie Decker.

"I think we can simplify things," agreed fellow member Mark Mitchell.

Decker also thought the second stage of response should have "more teeth," with an enforcement mechanism like fines formally written into the codified fine schedule. The important thing was to head off any shortage at the pass, ahead of emergency measures. "You don't want to be getting to that critical stage."

"I think that it absolutely has to have teeth," agreed Becky Rooney.

Mitchell was also concerned that the stage curtailing car and boat washing could be inimical to boatyard operations, as vessels need to be cleaned down after being pulled from the water before most work can be done. He noted that seafood processors could still continue operations at Stage II, and felt it would be an unfair distinction to make.

"You can't favor one business over another," he said.

There is an exemption in the action plan which allows for industrial and commercial water customers to continue utilizing water for their business operation needs, in particular those at the port and harbor facilities and fueling stations. Under Stage II, all such uses would see a reduction by 25 percent. Further limitations on industrial and commercial would amplify under State III, when water levels have reached a severe shortage.

The fourth and final stage can be declared when water storage tank levels fall below 10 feet for a period of three days. At this stage, with both tanks' actual capacities taken into consideration the city has only six feet of usable water in the tanks. At this point, all outdoor use of water is prohibited, and any customers found to have a leaky or damaged line can have their service shut off until repairs are made. Industrial and commercial water customers at this point would have water use reduced by 75 percent, while boat and harbor facilities would be discontinued until the situation improved.

The Assembly was expected to address and potentially adopt the revised plan at Tuesday's meeting. (See Assembly story on page 1.)


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