Brighton considers ‘creative’ alternatives for water treatment

Update on water treatment plant raises deeper questions

Liam Adams
ladams@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 7/2/21

Brighton’s water treatment plant is getting older and it’s only able to treat so much water, but the city can’t afford to replace the plant right now. Yet, the plant’s limits are already …

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Brighton considers ‘creative’ alternatives for water treatment

Update on water treatment plant raises deeper questions

Posted

Brighton’s water treatment plant is getting older and it’s only able to treat so much water, but the city can’t afford to replace the plant right now. Yet, the plant’s limits are already testing the waters in town.

Two weeks ago, the treatment plant’s demand exceeded the city’s projected peak for the summer, causing city utilities staff to be concerned about the plant’s ability to meet peak demand throughout the summer. City Manager Jane Bais DiSessa considered issuing mandatory water restrictions as a result, which led to a fierce debate among city councilors over Bais DiSessa’s authority over city utilities. Ultimately, the council decided that it wouldn’t limit Bais DiSessa’s power.

The recent council controversy may have subsided, but the fact of the matter is that equipment in Brighton’s water treatment plant will need replacing at some point, said Brett Sherman, utilities director.

The original plan was to essentially build a new plant and mothball the old one. The city hired engineering firm Brown and Caldwell in 2020 to design a new plant. Equipment in the prospective new plant would replace existing operations — like the reverse osmosis (RO) technology used to treat a portion of the city’s water supply and remove nitrates from the water — and introduce new technology to soften the taste of city water.

The new plant would have also had technology that “denitrifies” brine, or unusable water containing the nitrates separated from the clean water by using the reverse osmosis process. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment set new limits for the concentration of nitrates in brine, which Brighton currently does not meet. Brighton has until December 2024 to start meeting that “discharge limit.”

Before Brown and Caldwell completed its engineering analysis and design, Brighton city staff told the council that the total cost of a replacement plant could be around $100 million. Then, in March, Brown and Caldwell came back and said the cost would be between $150 to $180 million.

At that point, “We hit the wall with those costs,” said Marv Falconburg, deputy city manager, in a recent meeting that also included Bais DiSessa, Sherman, and Finance Director Maria Ostrom.

Falconburg added, “We don’t see how we can pull it off, so we have to go back to get more creative and look at other alternatives.”

Temporary or long term?

Since that realization, the city has worked with Brown and Caldwell to draft a list of strategies that the city can implement to address its needs in the meantime. That list includes using the wastewater plant to treat brine, expand the use of non-potable (or non-drinkable) water for irrigating parks, retrofitting parks with grass that requires less watering, and ramping up engagement with customers about conservation.  

Though some of the alternatives are seemingly out-of-the-box, Bais DiSessa said they are important for the city to do anyway, especially the conservation efforts.

“Some of these options. I know some of these people may think they are temporary, but some of them could be long-term,” Bais DiSessa said. “I think cities are recognizing that you just can’t go out and build a new treatment plant in every community and expect the residents to go into debt.”

At the same time, the city hasn’t completely discarded the idea of replacing equipment at the treatment plant. Using a phased-in approach, the city would like to still replace pumps and pipes in the plant, a water line to Ken Mitchell Lakes, and build two new injection wells.

Still, the priciest items will have to wait. Brighton currently doesn’t have enough money for the high costs, either through reserves or rate-generated revenue. Also, the city intends to issue bonds in the future to finance water infrastructure, which ratepayers ultimately pay for, but the goal is to limit that amount of debt.

Ostrom said, “We were always going to have to borrow some money, so it really is about controlling how much is borrowed.”

Following a 2019 controversy over water rates that led to a successful mayoral recall election, the city council voted to decrease rates in 2020 by 8 percent, and then freeze the rates in 2021. The decisions about rates were guided by a consultant, who made recommendations to the city after reviewing the utilities capital improvement plan.

Sherman and Bais DiSessa, who both came on board after the council decreased the rates, said they were surprised to see the rates go down, especially since learning what a new water treatment plant would cost.  

However, Ostrom noted, the city still couldn’t have afforded a new treatment plant if rates had not decreased.

“It would have required a huge rate increase, regardless,” Ostrom said, “So, we know that that is not reasonable for residents. We’ve got to do better; we’ve got to come up with a better solution.”

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