Water reports now routine, thanks to treatment plant

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

McCOOK, Neb. — Nowadays, water quality issues in the city water are no big deal but 12 years ago, it was a different story.

Without discussion, the McCook City Council received and filed the annual Water Quality Report for the McCook Public Water System at the regular council meeting Monday night as a consent agenda item, a far cry from 2005 when the mere mention of city water meant money and lots of it.

Rumblings about the city’s water quality first began in the 1990s, as the city council sought options to resolve contaminants in the water surpassing acceptable levels. By the time the McCook City Council in 2005 decided to build a water treatment plant, the city was being fined each day by state and federal agencies for not being in compliance with acceptable EPA limits for levels of uranium, arsenic and nitrates in the water.

The city also was cited for having too high an amount of ammonia in the wastewater discharged by the sewer into the Republican River, so another solution had to found for that, too.

If the city could remedy the problems by March 16, 2006 - the date is probably etched into McCook Utility Director Jesse Dutcher’s mind forever — the fines could be re-negotiated.

With the clock ticking, the city began the construction of a $13 million state-of-the-art water treatment plant. Revolutionary at the time, it treated the three contaminants at one time using an ion exchange method, blending non-treated water with treated water. An unconventional solution was approved by the council to get rid of the waste from the water treatment plant, a deep injection well, where water is pushed by gravity to a water source 1,800 feet deep. In addition, a biological aerated filtration system would be installed at the sewer plant to reduce ammonia levels to acceptable standards.

None of these solutions were going to be cheap, with a state revolving loan fund being utilized and increased water and sewer rates. The water treatment plant itself was estimated to cost $1 million a year to operate.

City Council meetings lasted three or four hours, as the council tried to keep on top of the situation. Change orders, escalating costs by hundreds of dollars, were common and challenged regularly by the council. Contractors, engineers and Dutcher were questioned every step of the way on the details of the projects.

Quite a lot hung in the balance, Dutcher recalled. “The council had a tough job, trying to do its best to represent the community,” Dutcher said. Complicating the process he said was the fact the treatment plant was being constructed at the same time the deep injection well was being designed. As one out of only two deep injection wells used in the state, Dutcher fielded many questions from the council. (There are now three deep injection wells in place in Nebraska, Dutcher said.)

By February 2006, one month ahead of the deadline, the water treatment plant came online. The deep injection well began operations two years later, in 2008. There are no fracking concerns with the well, Dutcher said, as the wastewater is not pumped but uses gravity to push the waste to water source that was determined to be of poor quality.

The annual water quality report the council approved Monday night cites no compliance issues for the reporting season of January through December 2017. The report includes source water, detected contaminants and compliance with current regulations (the city’s water supply is below the levels the EPA has determined to be safe.) Water in the treatment plant undergoes testing in six categories, with about 100 different contaminants tested.

The report, published in its entirety in the McCook Gazette’s classified section on Tuesday, also inspects and monitors the system to make sure pressure is maintained at the required levels and all the equipment is in good repair and updated.

With the water treatment doing its job, technology is finally catching up, in a way: Dutcher said the computer software first installed 12 years ago now has to be updated to keep the plant running as efficiently as possible.

Recent problems with the plant had nothing to do with quality but quantity: the drought the past few years has pushed the plant’s capacity to its limit in the summer months, with need outsourcing the supply, Dutcher said.

But, you still get the best bang for the buck when it comes to drinking water in McCook, he believes. As he wrote in the city council agenda report, that 16 ounces of bottled water you get for $1.79 at the gas station, for a few cents less at $1.71, you can buy 748 gallons of water from the city water department.

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