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City ponders tax increase for water plant upgrade

More than 35 years after it was built, the Two Harbors water plant is slated to receive significant upgrades beginning this fall.

The water treatment plant, located along Lake Superior at the end of South Avenue and First Street in Two Harbors, opened in 1978 to treat and distribute water from the lake to city residents, according to water and light Superintendent Luke Heikkila.

The facility consists of three buildings. One houses the water plant lines and pumps, one handles the treatment of water and another holds a generator. The improvement plan involves demolishing two of the buildings, upgrading the treatment building and constructing a new structure to house the lines, pumps and generator.

The building nearest Lake Superior, which holds the lines and pumps, wasn’t meant for water treatment. It began as a power plant and since it was designed for a different purpose, it has never quite measured up, Heikkila said.

Its location has been problematic. In the 1970s, for example, outside wave and water activity damaged the structure, driving home the fact that it’s too close to the shoreline. The equipment inside is outdated, too; the pumps and filters are inefficient, Heikkila said.

Backup power generation became another concern when the city’s main generator failed recently. Power is essential to pumping water from the lake into water mains and to the city’s water tower for distribution. The booster stations that distribute water throughout the city have never had backup power, another problem the upgrade will resolve.

“We can’t get the water up the hill without having pumping stations throughout the town,” Heikkila said.

The City hired engineers from MSA Professional Services to analyze the buildings and come up with viable options for improvement. Heikkila said the clear answer out of three options, was to tear down the generator building, decommission the turbine building and make significant upgrades to the system all at once.

“This was by far more efficient (and cost-effective) over the next 20 years,” Heikkila said.

The biggest hurdle is the price tag – an estimated $5 million.

“The funding for this is going to be a problem,” city councilor Roger Simonson told the News-Chronicle. “It’s not a large community of users.”

Councilors have said that there are 1,700 utility customers in the city.

Simonson said city officials have lobbied the state for bonding, but the project wasn’t included in Gov. Mark Dayton’s 2014 capital budget recommendations. The governor said that loan programs are available for the project.

At last week’s city finance and agenda meeting, councilor Jerry Norberg said the city is considering asking the voters for a sales tax increase to help pay for the project.

“I think we would be remiss ... not to look at getting a 0.5 percent sales tax increase on the fall ballot,” Norberg said.

If the voters approved the increase, councilors would bring the proposal to the legislature next spring, Norberg said. He did not say how much money such an increase would add to city coffers and calls to Norberg were not returned. City administrator Lee Klein was out of the office and could not be reached for further comment.

Heikkila said he hopes the upgrades will be done by next spring, and in the meantime utility customers won’t experience any service interruptions.

“We’ll be very busy but people won’t notice anything,” he said.

The water plant employs four people working in shifts, complemented by a distribution crew that works with water mains, sewer collection and natural gas.

LaReesa Sandretsky
LaReesa Sandretsky is a Two Harbors High School graduate and Duluth native who began working at the News-Chronicle in 2012 as a reporter. She took over as editor in 2014. She covers County Board, including the Lake County broadband project.
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