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Challenges at city water plant reach boiling point

“Enough is enough.”

That was the sentiment expressed by city commissioners on Monday, July 10, after receiving a less-than-ideal update on the city’s water plant.

More specifically, that was the sentiment expressed by commissioner Jim Belquist.

“I for one, like everybody else, am just really losing patience with this and I don’t get a sense of urgency here ..., I just don’t,” said Belquist. “I think I’m about ready to ask our attorney to start getting ready to file a lawsuit against everybody that’s connected with this.”

Belquist, who participated in the meetingvia phone, was speaking to Wade Senger of Interstate Engineering Inc., who gave commissioners the water plant update.

Senger had reported that an issue was discovered about three weeks ago that has forced the reverse osmosis (RO) system to run at half capacity.

Essentially, the two RO skids are unable to operate at the same time, and are taking turns rather than both operating all day, every day as they should. The consequence has been a slight drop in the city’s water quality.

“There is a pressure line that typically runs at about 20 to 30 psi (pounds per square inch), and it allows for water to go through the RO,” explained Senger. “Life was good on a Friday afternoon … But when the staff showed up to work on Monday, for whatever reason that number was up to 60 [psi].”

Senger explained that he’s been in contact with Rick Swenson, the plant’s operator, every day to locate the culprit for the pressure change, but had been unable to determine the cause as of Monday’s commission meeting.

They’ve also had a vendor come in to utilize a camera to check for any blockages in the pipe, but to no avail.

“All we’ve been able to accomplish so far is crossing things off the list of what it’s not,” said Senger. “Unfortunately we haven’t been able to identify what it is.”

Senger said they’ve checked just about everything inside the plant itself, leaving just a valve outside the plant as the potential culprit.

That valve, however, is eight feet underground, and the city may have to pay to dig it up if they don’t discover a defect with the pipe – which is still under warranty – or a problem with its installation.

However, Public Works Superintendent Bruce Hirchert told the Transcript on Wednesday that there are still a few more options to exhaust before undergoing such an invasive procedure.

He said they’re currently waiting on an individual who can make sure the issue isn’t simply the result of a bad flow meter or sensor, or any other potential electronic failure.

At Monday’s meeting, Commissioner Justin Ystaas noted that lightning had recently struck a tower in that area, which affected internet connections and, in theory, could have damaged something inside the water plant.

Additionally, they may be able to use a camera that can check the valve outside the water plant. Doing so would allow them to see if there’s a blockage before any digging takes place.

However, the camera that’s already been used by a vendor to check inside the plant isn’t capable of completing that task, so they’ll have to find someone with a camera that can.

Meanwhile, some residents are still reporting discolored water in their homes, and Senger said it’s unclear why some homes are drawing discolored water while their next-door neighbors have no issues.

Regardless, the fix is to continue flushing the lines to remove the excess iron and manganese sitting at the bottom of water lines throughout the city.

Belquist, Commission President Stu Richter and even Senger himself expressed frustration about the water issues and said they simply can’t continue like this.

“It’s just not happening fast enough,” said Belquist. “Our community has suffered through this for almost a year now, if not that. It just isn’t fair. There should be a crowd of people there tomorrow working on this, and so short of asking them to do it tonight, I’m going to ask that that be done next week.

“It’s poor management,” added Belquist, “and it can’t be tolerated anymore. So jack up everybody you have to and get them out there.”

“I’m sorry to hear that frustrations have escalated to that level, Jim,” responded Senger. “... I’ve been here several times a month trying to help Rick and Bruce [Hirchert] with different things throughout the course of the last year, trying to help out as we can with Interstate and we brought in other engineers from within Interstate.

“So I hope that you guys aren’t looking at us as the culprit on this, but if you are I need to know that so we can do something different.”

Belquist then interrupted to say, “To be honest with you I’m looking at everyone that’s been involved with this right now. There’s no excuse. … You oughta have everybody that’s involved in that here, next week, working on it.”

With that, Senger said he would continue to be in touch with Richter and Public Works Superintendent Hirchert regarding the water plant, and the commission moved on to their next agenda item, which was by no means less contentious.

Larry Danduran returns

Larry Danduran, a local property owner, returned on Monday to once again protest the commission's decision to charge him for utilities on a property that doesn’t use city services.

At the June meeting, Danduran said the property he owns is currently vacant and in the process of being renovated. It will eventually utilize city services, such as garbage, water and sewer, he said, but it currently does not.

The commission argued that, because there is “service” provided by a service line which connects the city main to the dwelling, that constitutes billing.

Danduran disagreed, and took particular exception to a comment from Commissioner Kelly McKnight, who said “Well, maybe this will get you to complete your project quicker.”

On Monday, Danduran returned and handed out copies of the city’s ordinance.

Regarding section 7-02-02 of the city ordinance, which addresses the reason for making garbage collection and disposal compulsory, Danduran said, “It states, ‘in the interests of protecting public health and sanitation.’ It does not state, ‘to motivate or coerce its citizens to get their construction projects done’ as stated in the last meeting.”

Danduran went on to review several other sections from the city ordinance, including 18-02-03, which states that any party that wants water service connected to the city’s water system shall apply for that connection on a form provided by the municipality.

“There has been no application made to date,” said Danduran. “In fact, I don’t have a water meter hooked up.”

After going through the various city ordinance sections, he concluded by asking the commission to reconsider their decision to bill his property for utilities because “the city ordinance does not include compulsory billing language that pertains to this property.”

Commission President Richter told Danduran that a group, including himself and City Attorney Travis Peterson, will review the ordinance and address the issue next month. He also assured Danduran that if they determine he was incorrectly billed, the city will credit him back.

Danduran was also told, however, that he will continue to be billed in the meantime.

Fee for late payment of water or sewer charges

Also on the agenda for Monday’s meeting was the approval of a resolution to increase the late fee for utility payments from 1.5 percent to $10.

After he was done reviewing the city ordinance, Danduran addressed this issue as well, arguing that the citizens hit hardest by this change will be the most vulnerable in the community, often including the low-income elderly.

Richter responded by saying the city is increasing the late fee because it costs the city more to mail out the late fee notice than they collect from the actual late fees.

When the idea to increase the late fee was put forth by City Auditor Becki Schumacher in April, she said a late fee of 1.5 percent amounts to little more than a dollar in many cases.

“The stamp alone is 60 cents,” said Richter.

Later in the meeting, the commission unanimously approved the resolution, officially increasing the late fee for utility bills from 1.5 percent to a flat fee of $10 per month.

The city’s next commission meeting is scheduled for Monday, August 7 at 7 p.m. in City Hall.