The City of Wrangell may move forward in replacing its water treatment plant. The current system cannot treat water fast enough to meet the city’s needs, especially in peak summer and winter seasons. 

Since its construction in 1999, the plant has been pushed to its limits to keep up with the water needs of Wrangell residents and industries. An influx of tourists, seasonal workers and seafood processors strain the water system in the summer. And during the winter, many folks are running water all day to keep their pipes from freezing.

In recent years, the city experienced treated water shortages. In 2016, it declared a local disaster and emergency. A memo from Public Works Director Amber Al-Haddad says water sales to cruise ships stopped, two seafood processors had to switch up operations, and locals were encouraged to reduce consumption by 30 to 50 percent. 

Last summer, was not that bad, but that’s because the city put up $50,000 to hire extra maintenance staff. The plant produces 1000 gallons per minute at max capacity.

“If we’re right on the cusp and pushing that already, our concern is do we have enough room for growth,” Al-Haddad says. “We’re talking about an ANSEP school, we’re talking about developing the institute property and putting 50 homes there, we’re talking about a new assisted living facility… whatever ends up going there is going to need water capability that we don’t have right now.”

The current slow-sand filtration system is, well, slow. Plus, Wrangell’s water has a high organic content that clogs the filtration systems easily. So, it’s taking a lot of staff to keep the plant going. The filters must be cleaned every week, rather than four times a year as the original design suggests.

Wayne McHolland is the city’s water treatment operator lead. He knows the plant better than anyone in town.

“The slow sand waters make great water when they have great water to make it out of,” McHolland says.

Al-Haddad presented plans for building a new plant to Wrangell assembly members this week. CRW engineering group consulted with the city and recommended building a new dissolved air floatation plant or DAF.

The consultants say the new plant would treat the water faster and with less manual labor. And the basins that currently store filtration sand could instead store more water.  Each of the four basins can hold upwards of 150,000 gallons each.

But assembly members expressed concerns about the new system, especially the $9 million price tag. State and federal monies would pay for the project, about half in grants and half in loans.

And there is some concern the new system may not be the right choice.

Not many communities in Alaska use the DAF system, but it’s still new and in occasional use in other countries. Still, the consultants and public works officials say it is clearly an upgrade from what Wrangell has now.

While the assembly is still working out the details, the community will see water rates increase. A 5 percent hike is already scheduled for July of this year, followed by another one in 2019.

Public works did not recommend installing a water metering system because of the more than $3 million cost. Assembly Member Steve Prysunka has supported metering to give folks an understanding and incentive to cut back.

“My premise has always been what are our actual needs for water, ‘cause right now everyone just burns as much as they want,” Prysunka says.

CRW consultants estimate Wrangell residents use 250 gallons per day per person. This isn’t an exact number since there is no metering. But, based on water production data, it is higher than the national average.

If the assembly approves this DAF construction, it still wants to address upcoming summer season needs. The city would bring in extra maintenance staff like it did last summer. And it would most likely replace the roughing filters, which could begin in late summer.

The assembly expects to take actions later this month.