New treatment method possible
After years of public kibitzing over the taste and smell of Burnsville’s drinking water, the City Council is turning to citizens for a verdict.
At a work session Tuesday, council members directed city staff to make a plan for probing public opinion on the topic.
The exercise could be the precursor to a costly upgrade of the city’s surface water treatment system. But the council stopped short Tuesday of ordering a feasibility study on a $5 million ozone system, preferring to first hear from the public.
Comments about Burnsville water have persisted since 2009, when the city began pumping water from the Kraemer Mining and Materials quarry next to the Minnesota River. In an arrangement benefiting both parties, the city captures upwelling water from the mining operation that used to be emptied into the river.
That surface water now comprises 40% of the city’s supply, alongside its groundwater wells. Burnsville also sells water to Savage, which gets 60% to 90% of its water from the neighboring city. The product is a blend of surface water and groundwater.
Taste and odor complaints greeted the surface water plant’s opening in 2009. An algae bloom in the quarry water at the time affected taste and smell but wasn’t the only culprit.
The city has since added powder activated carbon and granular activated carbon to the treatment process. The carbon absorbs compounds that create taste and odor, said Jeff Radick, assistant public works director.
“I do think there’s significant improvement in the water since ’09,” Public Works Director Ryan Peterson said. “I know it was quite bad.”
But citizen surveys confirm there’s room for improvement, he added.
In a 2012 community survey, 51% of respondents gave the drinking water a “negative” rating, according to a city report. In a 2021 survey, it earned a score of 63, the lowest in a ranking of city utility services. The survey asked respondents to identify shortcomings in the city, “and people selected water quality,” Council Member Cara Schulz said.
Council Member Dan Kealey voiced impatience with a problem he says won’t go away, despite improvements since the surface treatment plant’s debut.
“I’ve heard this problem ever since 2009 — 12 years of the same thing coming through surveys, feedback, everything,” he said. “To me it is a very well-documented, well-known problem. I would just like us to finally do something about it.”
Kealey, who lives on Travelers Trail in the Heart of the City, recalled using laundry additives to counteract the “pond scummy-smelling, foul-tasting water” at a previous Burnsville address.
“It was that bad,” he said, noting that he lived at the corner of two cul-de-sacs — dead-ends where pooling of water in the system can worsen taste and smell. “And we heard it from a lot of neighbors, all saying the same thing. We’re past those days. ... But we’re not home yet.”
There may be pockets of bad water in Burnsville, but it’s a mistake to assume everyone in town dislikes it, Council Member Dan Gustafson said.
“We don’t think we have bad water at my house,” he said. “I’ve never had anyone complain about the water at our house.”
Radick said his department gets about one water complaint per week.
“A lot of those are in-home plumbing issues, and some of it is taste and odor and things like that,” he said.
Schulz said the city has very hard water, and surveys could point to that as the biggest problem.
“We need to figure out what is the problem and fix the problem and not just assume it’s one thing or the other and go from there,” Gustafson said.
According to city staff, there are already plans to upgrade the carbon treatment at little added cost.
An ozone treatment system — estimated at $5 million — would break down and eliminate compounds that affect taste and smell.
St. Paul, which draws water from the Mississippi, is switching from carbon treatment to ozone, Radick said.
Burnsville is “at the bottom end of addressing taste and odor with the carbons,” he said.
Residents need to be aware of ozone’s cost and possible increases in water rates, Mayor Elizabeth Kautz said. Current rates wouldn’t cover the cost of the upgrade, according to staff.
Kealey contrasted Burnsville with Minneapolis, which he said has great-tasting water and seems to have mastered surface water treatment. Minneapolis uses carbon treatment, Radick said.