After about two hours of discussion Tuesday, the Wrangell Borough Assembly has decided on a possible short-term solution to its water production issue. In a hard-fought 5-2 vote, the panel decided to replace the water plant’s roughing filters and sand in one of four subsequent filters.
The project is estimated to cost about $380,000. About $180,000 of that will go towards roughing filters, which most assembly members agreed are necessary.
Replacing sand in all four filters is estimated to run about $1 million. Assembly member Stephen Prysunka made the motion to replace just one filter.
Both David Powell and Mark Mitchell adamantly opposed replacing the sand, citing the uncertainty of how much it would boost production.
“If I knew that replacing that sand was going to eliminate the problem, I’d do it in a heartbeat. I am in question of that. Carol doesn’t know that, Amber doesn’t know that,” Mitchell said. “They’re telling you they don’t know the percentage of increase, and I’m not willing to drop $1 million or even $500,000 on an experiment to see if this works.”
Assemblywoman Julie Decker, who supported Prysunka’s motion, shot back that engineers working with the city have said new sand would boost production in some capacity.
“I believe Amber said that the engineer said when they’re talking about options for cleaning the sand,” Decker went on, “he said ‘I don’t know, why don’t you get more sand, that will work.’”
Public Works Director Amber Al-Haddad confirmed to the panel that was correct, but when asked to obtain an exact figure, she explained even the engineers may not be able to answer that question.
Both Decker and Prysunka pushed for the motion, saying the possibility of Trident Seafoods moving its processing plant elsewhere is too risky.
“That is going to impact every facet of our community. We’ll have lots of water, but we won’t have any fish tax. I don’t want to take that chance,” Prysunka noted.
Assembly member Patty Gilbert amended the motion, dictating that funding come from restricted and unrestricted water funds. Borough Finance Manager Lee Burgess explained there will be about $280,000 in unrestricted funds at the end of the fiscal year. About $550,000 would have to be pulled from a time deposit account, incurring a small fee.
“You would have to take the cost of the roughing filters from the remaining funds in the water fund. You would be spending it down to a very low amount,” Burgess said.
Burgess explained rates may also have to be raised 15 percent to cover other debts that money was earmarked for. That doesn’t include funds to replenish the water reserves.
There is some question whether spending down the water fund will delay possible loan and grant funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for a new water plant. Interim Borough Manager Carol Rushmore explained that the process could start over once funds are spent.
“When you look at the financial information on the fund, it’s got to be one or the other, the sand or the new plant,” Rushmore said.
There is no clear date when the borough will find out if funding has been approved.
The assembly did unanimously agree to approve a three-stage water conservation plan. The initiative has been condensed down from a previous draft.
Stage one implements voluntary conservation efforts. Restrictions kick in at stages two and three. They range from disallowing watering lawns and washing hard surfaces to a 50 percent reduction of industrial users’ water flow. The stage-three reduction begins when the 850-thousand- gallon water tanks sink to 15 feet for three consecutive days.
Violators will be given a written warning and then fined if found in violation again. Stage two will constitute a $250 fine and stage-three violators will have $500 added to their utility bill.