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Tapping into savings

No-build approaches and alternative technologies can reduce the cost of water upgrades in small towns.

September 1, 2005


Phil Davies Staff Writer
Tapping into savings

Small towns with little hope of scoring a big government grant seemingly face a stark choice—either let their water systems fail, incurring fines and risking economic stasis, or bring them up to spec at enormous expense. But city councils and town boards have other options that can reduce the cost of water or wastewater upgrades, lessening the pain of ratepayers and making it easier to repay government loans.

One popular option is to join forces with other towns dealing with the same problems. By doing so, small water departments can avoid building their own, freestanding water infrastructure. In the Dakotas and Montana, dozens of regional drinking water systems have formed over the past 30 years, connecting isolated towns, hamlets and ranches to centralized water treatment plants. Through consolidation, they achieve the economies of scale enjoyed by urban water departments. Last year the Tripp County Water User District in south-central South Dakota extended its water lines to several small towns in south-central South Dakota with the help of state financing, including a $3.5 million drinking water revolving fund loan. Treated water flows from wells drilled into the Ogalala aquifer near Winner through a pipeline strung along U.S. Highway 18 to the towns of Gregory, Burke, Herrick, St. Charles and Bonesteel, all of which have experienced water shortages or contamination problems.

In Burke, two of seven wells had become infected with iron-eating bacteria and no longer met Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards. Rather than dig replacement wells, the town of 680 opted to hook up to Tripp County's system, avoiding an upfront investment of roughly $90,000 and cutting operating expenses as well. Utilities Superintendent Wade Broome said that as a Tripp County customer, the city spends slightly more per gallon of water, but expects to save about $3,000 a year in water testing expenses. The new system also requires less maintenance and monitoring, slashing labor costs. "When you start figuring everything into it, I think it was a good decision to go with Tripp County," he said.

Tapping into somebody else's infrastructure can also save money on wastewater treatment. Garfield, Minn., a growing town of 300 near Alexandria, is considering joining the Central Lakes Regional Sanitary District, a new entity formed in 2003 to treat effluent from several lake communities. A new pipeline would carry some Garfield wastewater to an expanded treatment plant in Alexandria, relieving the strain on the town's leaking sewer system.

Beyond the big pipe

Other cost-saving strategies for small towns include making use of unconventional technologies and outsourcing daily operations to private firms.

Alternative, low-cost technologies geared to rural settings can be particularly effective in wastewater collection and treatment. Most small communities never consider any system other than the traditional sewer-and-lagoon system installed in hundreds of cities across the country, said Nancy Straw, president of West Central Initiative, a community development foundation based in Fergus Falls, Minn. "Most of the elected officials in our small towns have no background or experience in wastewater management. The first call they make when there's a problem is to an engineering firm ... and, of course, the path of least potential liability for the engineering firm is to do the tried and true method—the big-pipe wastewater treatment plant."

Following up on a 2003 survey of water infrastructure needs in its nine-county region, WCI is developing guidelines to help small towns valuate other types of wastewater systems that may be cheaper to install and operate. These technologies are especially suited to unsewered areas such as lakeshore communities and tiny farming settlements, which are coming under pressure from pollution regulators to upgrade to some type of community wastewater treatment system.

"Outside-the-box" approaches to wastewater management include small-diameter, flexible sewer piping, much less expensive to lay than standard 8-inch sewer mains; community mound or underground filtering systems; and artificial wetlands that clean wastewater more efficiently than plastic-lined lagoons. The town of Rutledge in east-central Minnesota was planning to break ground this fall on a $1.3 million wastewater treatment system that features a constructed wetland and drip irrigation field. The engineering firm that designed the system estimates that it will cost 15 percent less than the town's other options for replacing failing private septic tanks—building a conventional treatment plant or connecting to a sewer system in a nearby town.

Wringing out savings on drinking water upgrades with alternative technologies is more problematic, especially when it comes to complying with regulations limiting dangerous contaminants. Households across the country rely on $150 to $400 under-the-sink filtration systems to remove common impurities such as sodium, sulphates, nitrates and iron from tap water. But the EPA and state health departments have taken a hard line on "point of use" filtering of contaminants such as arsenic and radium as a substitute for centralized water treatment in towns. Local governments must certify that filtration systems are installed in every home and business—a requirement that many towns consider burdensome and obtrusive. Nevertheless, on-site drinking water treatment may be a cost-effective option for rural communities of fewer than 200 people with no other means of meeting certain EPA standards.

Looking to save money on staffing and administration, some rural communities and homeowners associations have contracted with private vendors to operate their newly constructed or upgraded water infrastructure.

EcoCheck Inc. of Forest Lake, Minn., manages over 50 water and decentralized wastewater (not connected to a conventional treatment plant) facilities in Minnesota. Most of them are brand new cluster developments on the fringes of the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area, but the firm also operates water and wastewater systems in rural settlements. Each town pays a monthly fee for the services of a certified operator who may oversee several systems in a region—sparing communities the expense of hiring their own full-time staff.