Westminster considering way forward with water treatment plant

Luke Zarzecki
lzarzecki@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 6/9/22

Westminster's water utility staff are asking a lot of questions about the future of the city service, including how it could handle wildfire-contaminated runoff along its watershed

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Westminster considering way forward with water treatment plant

Posted

Westminster's water utility staff are asking a lot of questions about the future of the city service, including how it could handle wildfire-contaminated runoff along its watershed

“Right now, we're really balancing what our priorities are and balancing really what city council's priorities are and then at the end of the process, we'll start putting actual numbers to the alternatives,” said Sarah Borgers, interim department director of Westminster’s Public Works and Utilities.

One of those alternatives is treating wildfire and algae bloom contaminated water and making it taste good. 

“Is that something we want to invest in as a community or not?” she said. 

The biggest risk to Westminster’s drinking water is wildfires and algae blooms, according to Tom Scribner, water treatment superintendent with Westminster. The water flows from Loveland pass to Clear Creek to Farmers Highline canal and into the lake.

 Borgers said wildfire risk is high. 

“Unfortunately, Clear Creek is at a very high risk for having a catastrophic wildfire,” she said. 

It is something the city is very aware of and Westminster is heavily involved with mitigating wildfire in the watershed, she said. 

“If it were to get into Standley Lake, Semper probably would have a hard time treating it. But we have the ability to divert water around Standley so that Semper is not having to treat that poor quality water,” Borgers said.

The Semper Water Treatment Plant was built in the 1960s and does not have the technology to treat wildfire contaminated water to make it drinkable, according to Scribner.

Standley Lake has about a year of water storage the city would use, she said. The city would be able to find a new, reliable source for drinking water in that year, she said.  Standley Lake supplies water for Northglenn and Thornton as well as Westminster.

“It's not real easy to find another water supply that could replace Standley lake for any of the three cities, but with a year's worth of time and time to contemplate and work through the situation, we would come up with an alternative situation,” she said. 

A wildfire is a risk to water quality because it devastates a watershed, killing all the vegetation and making the soil hydrophobic, Borgers said.

“What that ends up doing is causing flash flooding, and it causes a lot of erosion to happen so you end up with these black water events that are very ash heavy. That kind of water can't be treated,” she said. “Anytime you get a small storm or a big storm in the watershed, you end up with water that’s got a lot of dirt in it coming downstream because there’s no vegetation left there to hold that dirt in place.”

She said it can take anywhere between one and five years to level out. 

Revenue for  upgrades

Westminster’s council lowered new water rates on Feb. 28 that kicked in on June 1. and that means the city could need to take out a bond to fund a new water treatment improvements, according to  Deputy City Manager Barbara Opie.

The city's new pricing structure reduced the price-per-gallon for the city's lowest pricing tier from $3.96 per 1,000 gallons for the first 6,000 gallons to $3.57 per 1,000 gallons for the first 8,000 gallons.

They also reduced the price for middle tiers to $6.52 per 1,000 gallons and for the top tier to $8.15 per 1,000 gallons. The top tier covers utility customers that use more than 40,000 gallons per year, the middle tier for use between 8,000 and 40,000 gallons.

“The City will be studying the new, lower water rates’ impact on water consumption,” Opie said. "Modeling used in setting the new rate structure includes $150 million for a replacement water treatment plant or the rehabilitation of the existing Semper Water Treatment Facility."

The city could either raise rates now to cover a bigger percentage of the cost of a water treatment plant or it could fund it with bonds that are paid over decades, she said. Bonding would spread the burden of the cost the burden if the plant's cost over today’s customers as well as those down the road.

City Councilor Sarah Nurmela said the current rates could hurt the city down the road. She is looking for more options. 

“In order to be in the black in 10 years with the rates we have chosen, we have to take out additional loans. And the more loans we take out, the less ability we have to borrow additional money. I am concerned we'll have put ourselves in a corner in 10 years' time,” she said. 

Costs reduce options

The water rates have reduced the amount of money the water utility has for either upgrading the current plant or building a new one, City spokesman Andy Le said. 

The city estimated it would need roughly $250 million to build a new plant.  The current council nixed the previous plan for a new water treatment plant, Water 2025, that would have scheduled construction for a new plant in 2023.

Due to the new council, the city and council are looking for something different. The new cost estimate is now about $150 million for water system improvements.

“Staff is currently working with the council to reevaluate additional scenarios to address aging infrastructure at Semper - including rehabilitating Semper in place, building a treatment plant offsite and other options,” Le said. 

Borgers said Semper is starting to degrade. 

“There are multiple issues with Semper. We have fantastic staff out there, and they're able to do amazing things with very old technology and I think we've all gotten very used to Westminster having great water,” she said. 

The city and the council will need to decide whether to scrap the entire plant and start over or find out what makes sense to upgrade.  

“There's a cost benefit there and so that's part of what the analysis is going to help show us,” she said. 

Risk and affordability are the balance council must strike, Mayor Pro Tem David DeMott explained. 

“What level of risk is acceptable? How do we make sure that at the end of the day, no matter what, we're delivering clean drinking water?” he said.

The water professionals will share with the council what is acceptable risk and what is not acceptable risk. He noted that money is not unlimited, so affordability is key. 

“If you can't afford it, what good does it do?” he said.

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