Water capacity issue drivers behind Wilmar mega water treatment plant project – West Central Tribune

WILLMAR – The City of Willmar’s water consumption has been increasing over the past few years, requiring Willmar Municipal Utilities to put the Northeast Water Treatment Plant project back at the top of its to-do list.

“We have no choice but to move forward with the project, whether we receive funding or not,” John Harlan, general manager of Wilma Municipal Utilities, said at a municipal utility board meeting on Monday.

Utilities are applying for federal and state funding to help pay for an estimated $25 million project. In Washington, D.C., federally requested $3.5 million in congressional-directed spending is pending, while in St. Paul, Wilma Municipal Utilities wants $16.9 million in guaranteed funding. A bill has been introduced in both the state House and Senate.

While the project was not included in Gov. Tim Walz’s proposed capital improvement budget, there is hope that it will be included in the final bill. Without grant funding, water bills would need to be substantially increased to help pay for the project. The utility company is completing a rate study.

“Our request is going through. It remains to be seen where we end up,” Harlan said.

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Inside Wilmar’s Northeast Water Treatment Plant, water is drawn from wells, through aeration towers, and into this labyrinth of pipes and tanks. Here, the water is treated to remove impurities and then flows into the water tower for distribution.

Shelby Lindruder/West Central Tribune

Once completed, the project will improve the plant’s water quality by installing a new biological filtration system to remove contaminants such as ammonia, iron and manganese from the water. The project will also help ensure Willmar has enough water to meet the city’s growing needs. A new building needs to be constructed next to the current factory to accommodate the new equipment.

“This is a multi-year project that we need to complete. We are 90% complete with the design” and are expected to break ground sometime this year, said Alan Neer, director of the water department. “There’s a lot of moving stuff.”

Water consumption and line change

In 2021, Willmar Municipal Utilities extracted 1.501 billion gallons of water for distribution, an average of 4.122 million gallons per day. That’s less than 2020, when the city pumped 1.534 billion gallons. Part of the increase in 2020 is due to COVID-19, with more people staying at home all day and less water wastage, Neal said.

“We’re trying to tighten our waste,” Neal said.

Another reason for the reduction in water usage between 2020 and 2021 is the watering restrictions imposed by Willmar Municipal Utilities last summer. On June 7, the city’s water consumption was 6.669 million gallons, and 10 days over the summer season exceeded 6 million gallons, a record.

“When we get to 6.7 million gallons per day, that gets us dangerously close to 90% (capacity). Any failure, leak, whatever happens can affect how well we can keep water in the system when we need it, especially with high demand ,” Neal said, adding that that’s why the water restrictions were in place. “Three years ago, it never exceeded 6 million. That shows where our capabilities are. We have to fix this as soon as possible.”

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Alan Neer, Director of Willmar Municipal Utilities Water, explains how the water distribution system works. Two treatment plants provide water for the entire city. As the city grew, so did Willmar’s water consumption, requiring a major project at the North East Water Treatment Plant.

Shelby Lindruder/West Central Tribune

Willmar Municipal Utilities will have to repair 29 water mains in 2021, up from 23 in 2020. Disruptions are usually caused by ground movement caused by winter frosts.

“We had a lot last year,” Neal said.

26 were main lines and 3 were service lines, and the repair cost was $263,772, of which the asphalt repair cost was $141,784. Neal said cities of the future will be responsible for the asphalt.

This year, Willmar Municipal Utilities is working with the City of Willmar to develop a five-year list of projects it hopes will align city street projects with priority utility replacement projects. This will reduce having to tear down new streets to replace utility lines. During the 2022 construction season, Willmar Municipal Utilities has more than $1.5 million worth of city street engineering projects.

customer service rock star

The City Public Utilities Commission also heard Monday about all the work that utility customer service personnel are doing in 2021. The three full-time staff serve all of the utility’s 10,800 customers, including processing all billing and service orders.

“They’re really problem solvers,” said Janell Johnson, executive director of customer service. “I call them our rock stars because they deal with a lot of things, a lot of unknowns.”

Last year, Willmar Municipal Utilities began disconnecting utilities for long-overdue accounts. Due to the pandemic, in 2020, the utility company did not disconnect service to anyone as recommended by the state. Last year, 66 accounts were closed.

“They’re serious (overdue), the amount is high, and we’re out of every possible avenue to get them to pay,” Johnson said. “They’ve all recovered since then.”

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Willmar Public Utilities’ customer service staff are often the first point of contact for the supplier’s 10,000+ customers. Pictured from left to right are Marisa Rodriguez, Christa Anderson and Kim Weisber.

Shelby Lindruder/West Central Tribune

One of the department’s goals is to more aggressively collect overdue accounts and avoid disconnections. This includes more face-to-face discussions with account holders and helping them apply for assistance programs. In 2021, more than $600,000 was sent to Wilmar Municipal Utilities through various assistance programs to help pay customer bills.

“We’re sending aid forms to people in person to encourage them to apply,” Johnson said.

Willmar Municipal Utilities will also continue to urge customers to pay bills electronically and sign up for paperless billing using the electronic billing system. Currently, 38% of customers use electronic billing and 18% use paperless billing.

“We’ve been encouraging paperless because it obviously reduces our expenses,” Johnson said.

The committee thanked the customer service staff for all their work and for being the voice of Willmar Municipal Utilities.

“We are very grateful for the work they have done there,” Commissioner Cole Erickson said. “As that positive figure, they wear a lot of hats.”

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Willmar Municipal Utilities’ customer service staff handles all bills and initiates thousands of service orders each year. From left to right are Kim Wesbur, Krista Anderson and Maritza Rodriguez.

Shelby Lindruder/West Central Tribune

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