An engineer’s report accepted by Mound city council members June 22 gave a revised estimate of what it would take for the city to treat its water for iron and manganese, showing a bump of $4.9 million over the initial $19.96 million estimate made in April and bringing the new expected project total to $24.9 million.
The report offered few new details apart from more fine-tuned cost estimates, including potential impacts to ratepayers if the city’s bid for outside funding, submitted in April, comes to nought.
The city had commissioned the report in March this year as a way to guide decision making in fixing the manganese problem after Minnesota Department of Health, which has recently placed health advisory limits on the contaminant, found elevated levels of manganese at both of the city’s active wells last December.
Even prior to completion of the report, Mound had submitted applications to get in line for state funding through the Public Facilities Authority, and officials said they’ve also been working with state and federal lawmakers.
“We’re doing everything we can and we’re trying to tackle every single one of those partners and drag them into this conversation with us,” said Mound Mayor Ray Salazar.
MDH only recently began systematic testing for manganese, acting on changes made at the federal level in 2018. Under those changes, advisory limits for manganese were set at .3 mg per liter for adults or .1 mg per liter for infants. Spot testing by MDH at each of the city’s wells in December had revealed manganese levels between .45 mg per liter and .72 mg per liter. Those results were confirmed through subsequent testing in January and February.
“Essentially, we’ve been handed an unfunded mandate in the changes to the requirements that have been placed on us,” said Brian Simmons, city engineer for Mound.
Under the changes at MDH, manganese remains a secondary contaminant—tested for, but not regulated—and elevated levels of it do not pose an immediate threat, although they could through prolonged exposure adversely affect health outcomes.
Mound’s “rusty water problem” has hitherto been an aesthetic nuisance, but with MDH’s setting of health advisory limits it has now become a costly challenge to fix.
If no additional funding becomes available, the projected $24.9 million cost to filter out the manganese will also filter out to rate payers. Under what officials are saying is the worst-case scenario, the average resident in Mound could see a 78 percent increase to what is already one of the highest water bills in the area: from $42 per month to $75 per month.
Any build of a new iron and manganese filtration treatment plant, the preferred solution in the engineer’s report, would take place at the Evergreen tower site, near Sorbo Park. The project also entails drilling a new well at that site, which will allow the city to retire one of the two currently active wells, drilled in 1947 and 14 years past life.
The manganese issue can’t be solved just by drilling the new well, which is just a small fraction of the expected total project cost, said Simmons. “[Drilling the well] does give us a more reliable source in terms of volume and capacity, but it still leaves us with concerns about what the makeup of the source water is.”
The initial estimate made in April hadn’t accounted for the additional watermain improvements that would have to be made in building a new filtration plant, said Simmons, and those improvements alone are expected to cost $4.5 million if officials choose to extend their scope beyond the minimum necessary. The city could get by with making just $680,000 in watermain improvements as part of this project, said Simmons, “if we choose to live with a slightly lower level of service in certain areas of town.”
Mayor Salazar referred to the minimal option as “shooting ourselves in the foot” and “just not smart,” while also acknowledging the burden of infrastructure improvements already being born by ratepayers. “We’ve worked so hard for so many years and spent quite a bit of money in the delivering of water—that’s reflective in our bills.”
City manager Eric Hoversten commented that in accepting the engineer’s report and its higher cost estimates, that there could be a greater possibility in securing outside dollars, saying of the full $24.9 million, “This is an ugly number, somewhat purposefully.”
Added to that “ugly number” is an anticipated $236,500 in annual operation and maintenance costs that include the hiring of another fulltime employee.
Engineers also analyzed a secondary option, that of building a lime softening treatment facility for upward of $35 million. City officials did not reject this option outright but did equate the cost differential to an $11 million investment in water softener.
Operation and maintenance on a lime softening facility was also projected to be more expensive, at $492,500 annually, in part due to licensure costs and the additional storage needed for the lime sludge that would get removed.
Council did not take any action June 22 other than to accept the engineer’s report, and Hoversten told the Laker that the “next significant feedback or milestone indicator” rests with the Public Finance Authority. That body typically releases its scoring for project eligibility lists (like that applied for by Mound officials) sometime in August, said Hoversten. Being on a priority list then opens up access to the revolving funds, state bonding and federal allocations that will then further local decision makers in their next steps.