How $12 Million Became $35.9 Million
By Addie Greene
Ashland City Administrator Kelly Madding explained the city’s decision to go ahead with a proposed $35.9-million water treatment plant at a City Council study session August 5.
The city’s 2012 Water Master Plan included the current 2.5 million gallon a day (MGD) facility and the 2.6 MGD Crowson Reservoir, and proposed another 2.5 MGD plant, Madding said, but the city uses 5-6 MGD in the summer and on very hot days 7 MGD.
Public Works Director Paula Brown, appointed in November of 2017 after retiring as a rear admiral, said, “The city was just going along very happy without poking our heads up to see what’s going on,” referring to the proposed 2.5 MGD plant. “I was fortunate to come in with a fresh view of the matter.”
Brown proposed either building one 7.5 MGD plant or upgrading the existing plant to extend its lifespan to more than 20 years. “The current plant will not be able to meet Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Oregon Health Authority (OHA) regulatory requirements, specifically for algae,” Madding said.
Carol Voisin took issue with these assumptions, saying “The current rate structure is based on the 2012 master plan and a $12 million plant. This expansion will require 4-6 new employees. How will this be paid for?” No one answered her question.
Back in February of 2017, engineer Pieter Smeenk wrote a letter to then City Administrator John Karns and City Attorney David Lohman expressing his concerns:
- Four major engineering projects were being awarded to a single consultant; city procurement ordinances require that engineering services exceeding $35,000 be procured competitively
- The siting study for the WTP was limited to two sites only, both steep and difficult to access by road
- The lead engineer for HDR Engineering, Inc., was fired during the procurement process
- The scope of the project needs to be revised to account for the approximately 20% reduction in water demand since the reservoir and plant were sized in 2012. Also, the fact that the Talent Ashland Phoenix (TAP) pump station was originally assumed for emergency use only but now is permanent should be factored in
- The siting study for the WTP should compare any site proposed directly against the option to bifurcate and harden the existing plant, because the costs and emissions for moving the WTP are extremely large, and the benefit of relocating is relatively small.
Although the City Council removed discussion of the water treatment plant from the February 21, 2017 agenda, the city fired Smeenk for being a whistleblower. He recently won his suit against the city, and an appeal, for $258,000 plus court costs of $410,000+.
At the November 6, 2017 Council Study Session Public Works proposed suspending preliminary engineering on the 2.5 MGD plant in favor of a 7.5 MGD facility and upgrading the current plant. The city selected HDR Engineering, Inc., to develop plans for the larger plant.
After giving background, Madding turned the meeting over to Scott Fleury, deputy Public Works director, and Pierre Kwan, regional water treatment manager at HDR, who said the cost of deconstructing the old plant is included in the $35.9-million estimate.
“We must take into account the Croman and Normal areas not yet developed and the probable increase in Ashland’s urban growth boundary,” Mayor John Stromberg said.
“Is climate change being taken into account?” asked Councilor Tonya Graham. No one answered her question.
Kwan gave a preliminary engineering analysis:
- The new plant will be at the Granite Street site above the swimming hole
- The existing plant will be decommissioned
- The 7.5 MGD facility will be expandable to 10 MGD
- A clearwell will provide additional storage
- Membrane filtration processes will address taste-and-odor compounds, algae, and algal toxins.
Salem last year had a “do not drink” advisory for city water, Kwan said. OHA
immediately ordered all Oregon municipalities to address toxic water issues.
When told that the preliminary engineering analysis came in with a $45.9 million price tag, Stromberg asked, “Did you take out important capabilities in reducing the cost (to $35.9 million)?”
We can replace concrete, which will last 100 years, with a cheaper substitute that will last 60-70 years, Kwan said. “We also changed the structure to two-story.”
In promoting the Granite site, Kwan said “there is much lower landslide risk than at the current facility.” However:
- The overall site is shallow fractured bedrock
- The site’s available flat area is small and may need regrading, and pumping may be required
- The site has steep rock hillsides, and debris must be removed
- Finished water and sewer connections will be on opposite sides of Ashland Creek, so piping will have to be done under the creek or on a bridge over the creek.
“If anything happens to the piping, the entire system goes down,” Kwan warned.
Water treatment at the new plant will use ozone to eliminate taste and odor issues and
destroy potential algal toxins, Kwan said. Better filter operations will help remove solids, he said.
“If you get permission to stop using chlorine, can the ozone handle purification?” Stromberg asked. Yes was the answer.
“Every winter the treatment plant has to cut back production because of sedimentation in the water,” Fleury said. Storm-driven turbidity also affects Reeder Reservoir and the Talent Irrigation District (TID), and climate change will increase this turbidity, he said. A plan for sediment removal from Reeder Reservoir will be developed in conjunction with Chris Chambers, Ashland Fire forestry division chief, and Marty Main, Ashland silviculture specialist.
There are solar power constraints because of the city’s contract with the Bonneville Power Authority, which ends in 2028.
“At that time can we expand the use of solar?” Councilor Julie Akins asked. The answer was yes.
“How are you controlling costs?” Graham asked.
“The bites of the apple for cost reduction are getting smaller and smaller,” Fleury replied.
“There are safety issues for wildlife and public access (on hiking trails),” said Councilor Stefani Seffinger.
“We will install fencing at 20-30 feet,” Kwan said, “and follow EPA and Homeland Security guidance.”
To recapitulate, “we went from a 2.5 MGD plant in 2012 to a 7.5 MGD plant in 2017,” Councilor Dennis Slattery said. “Do we feel we have the right plan now? We haven’t talked at all about operational costs—do we get more water for less money?”
The mayor cut off this discussion because of time constraints, and Madding asked if another study session was needed for September 3. That question remained unanswered.