As spring arrives and the snow melts, Wrangell’s water woes are continuing to snowball and will only get bigger as temperatures rise. The Wrangell Borough Assembly held a special meeting Thursday to weigh several short-term fixes and conservation efforts for the upcoming summer season.
Every assembly member was on hand to evaluate a four-stage draft plan for conserving water this summer. Between two seafood processors and the public, the water treatment plant struggles to keep up with demand. The borough declared a local emergency disaster in 2016 because of the issue.
The plan would kick into gear when the water plant’s 850,000-gallon holding tanks are drawn down to 25 feet for three consecutive days. Stage one calls for voluntary conservation efforts, and restrictions kick in when the tanks hit 20 feet. They range from watering lawns and gardens only three days per week to reducing industrial users’ water flow by 25 percent.
At the most critical stage, industrial users’ will be cut by 75 percent. All unnecessary water usage, such as the community pool, will be temporarily suspended.
Assembly member Julie Decker thinks the plan is too complicated.
“I have a little concern that it’s a little bit too detailed and long for enforcement and for the community to understand it,” she elaborated. “I personally would like to see it narrowed down to three stages.”
Several members agreed it needs to be simplified. Public Works Director Amber Al-Haddad explained she would rework the plan.
“It will take a little time, but if I could get any of your comments, however appropriate it’s for me to obtain those, I will work on those and have a draft as soon as possible for you to see Tuesday,” she said.
Al-Haddad also updated the panel on several possible short-term solutions as the borough works toward building a new plant. The most expensive option is to replace 18-year-old sand used to filter Wrangell’s water.
Assembly member Stephen Prysunka read a concerning quote from a unofficial letter from Water Plant Manager Wayne McHolland.
“Each of the four filters is completely plugged from the top to the bottom with dirt and organics, and they actually look like dark brown sugar, where they used to be white as a sheet of paper,” Prysunka read. “In such a condition, they are breeding grounds for nasty critters, and as such, it is very likely that the only thing separating us from a public health issue is a little bit of chlorine and luck.”
It would run about $1 million to replace sand in all four filters. Finance Manager Lee Burgess explained that after incurring about $400,000 in capital costs this upcoming fiscal year, the water reserve would only have about $280,000 left.
“So you can keep that in context with respect to the cost that was just cited for replacing the sand,” Burgess cautioned.
Prysunka questioned whether money from the general fund could be used in lieu of water reserves.
“However, in our charter, it’s essentially stated enterprise funds will be funded from their own means based on rates that are charged,” Burgess said.
It’s not clear how the assembly would get around that issue.
The borough is also working to obtain grant and loan funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to replace the current plant. The project is estimated to run about $8.5 million. Burgess explained using water reserves may hamper the probability of obtaining funding.
“One of the things they’ve asked us repeatedly is ‘What money is available for you to contribute to this project?’,” Burgess recalled.
On top of all of this, the water plant’s initial filters are clogged with sediment, producing dirtier water. Al-Haddad said that will continue to clog the subsequent sand filers.
The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation has approved modifications to the roughing filters, but there’s no guarantee the $100,000-dollar project will boost production. Al-Haddad said replacing those filters is may be a better option.
“Regardless if we do anything with the sand, I think the roughing filters should be something to look at for upgrading those,” she explained. “Especially if we look at something with the sand, we don’t do something with the roughing filter, we’re going to continue to put a lot of pressure on your sand.”
Al-Haddad suggested an auto-cleaning filter. That system would cost up to $180,000 to install and $15,000 to operate per year.
The assembly will revisit the issue at its regular meeting on April 11.
Correction: A previous version of the story read that Public Works Director Amber Al-Haddad sent a memo containing the quote Stephen Prysunka read. It was an not Al-Haddad, but an unofficial letter from Water Plant Manager Wayne McHolland.