COLUMBIA — Take a short walk down a flight of metal stairs at the McBaine Water Treatment Plant, and you'll see the large green pipes that handle every drop of drinking water provided by the city.
This treatment plant can handle almost three times the water Columbia uses on an average day. Still, tentative plans are in the works for a $65 million project that would nearly double the city's water supply, with businesses and residents paying higher water bills to help fund the project.
TOP 10 CITY WATER USERS
These companies used the most water from September 2010 to September 2011. Combined, these companies used about 12.26 percent of the city's total demand. Here are the totals for the top 10 users along with their percentage of total city water use.
- Columbia Foods — 311.1 million gallons; 7.68 percent.
- Boone Hospital Center — 39.8 million gallons; 0.98 percent.
- Truman Memorial Veterans Hospital — 34.1 million gallons; 0.84 percent.
- University Hospital — 24.3 gallons of water; 0.6 percent.
- Columbia's 3M plant — 18 million gallons; 0.45 percent.
- State Farm — 16.4 million gallons; 0.4 percent.
- Best Men LLC — 16.1 million gallons; 0.4 percent.
- Linen King — 13 million gallons; 0.32 percent.
- Rock Bridge High School — 12.6 million gallons; 0.31 percent.
- PW Eagle Inc. (plastic manufacturer) — 11.6 million gallons; 0.29 percent.
STEPS TO EXPANSION
This project still has to go through several steps before construction begins:
- First, members of the Water and Light Advisory Board will tell the Department of Water and Light how they think the city should expand the treatment plant. This means choosing one of six plans from the engineering report. The board first saw the plan at a meeting in February.
The Department of Water and Light will look at the advisory board's recommendation and then make its own recommendation to City Council. The Council will then vote on how it thinks the Department of Water and Light should move forward.
The Department of Water and Light will commission a report drawing up more specific plans for the expansion based on the council's recommendation. This will include a more specific cost estimate.
The City Council will look at this plan and decide how to fund it. It will likely be put on the ballot as a voter-approved bond.
The proposed expansion would be the biggest and most complicated in the treatment plant's history, and officials say it's necessary to meet anticipated future demands.
Reasons for expansion
The city can treat 32 million gallons of water each day at the treatment plant. Even during the summer, peak use in Columbia hovers at around 20 million gallons a day, comfortably below the treatment plant's capacity.
The city started looking at the idea of expanding the treatment plant in 2008, after it commissioned a report estimating how water use would change as Columbia's population increased. The report predicted that demands would bump up against the city's water treatment capacity in the summer sometime between 2016 and 2018.
Since the report came out, however, development in Columbia has slowed considerably. The city sees growth of about 1 percent a year compared to 3.5 percent when the report was written. As you might expect, when the amount of new water users dropped in response to the economic downturn, so did the amount of water people in Columbia used.
"We know the growth rate has changed," Jim Windsor, manager of rates and fiscal planning at Columbia Water and Light said. "It doesn't change what has to be done, just when it has to be done."
The slowdown has given the city extra time to work through the proposed changes, John T. Conway, a professional engineer and chairman of the Water and Light Advisory Board, said.
"The longer we can put that off, the better off we are," he said. "Until that pattern (of consumption) changes significantly, there's still a number of years we're in good shape."
The city is still crunching numbers to estimate when it needs to finish the project. By the end of the summer, city staffers should have a better idea of an exact date to recommend to the City Council, said Connie Kacprowicz, utility services specialist at Columbia Water and Light. These projections will depend on how much water people use over the summer and how much new construction — especially of commercial buildings — there is.
Columbia Water and Light will probably present its recommendation to the council later this year, Kacprowicz said. The city needs to keep moving on the project because there is such a long process before construction can even begin.
"It's not something where we have to rush through it right at this second, but we need to keep our eye on that at some point we will have to expand the plant," she said.
The city won't be able to treat as much water at the plant while it's being worked on, so the city needs to start construction sooner rather than later, Water Treatment Chief Operator Ed Fisher said. If the city waits too long, the treatment plant could hit capacity during construction.
The expansion would likely be done in phases to avoid reducing the plant's capacity too much. Because the proposed expansion is so dramatic — increasing the treatment capacity from 32 million gallons a day to 60 million — the city will need to add a filter building and clear well to the plant, move a levee and buy more land to drill wells to finish the project.
The city has already taken some less expensive steps to make sure it has extra drinking water ready in case there is a sharp spike in water use. It stores treated water in two unused city wells.
Each of these wells stores about 30 million gallons, and the city is looking at using another one or two wells this way. The city can pull about 2 million gallons of water from these wells each day until it has used up the stored water.
At about $350,000 apiece, these storage wells are a bargain compared to expanding the water treatment plant. Floyd Turner, manager of water operations for the city, said they only offer a short-term solution to increased water demands because the wells can only be used for about 15 days before the city has to refill them.
Water and Light Advisory Board member Hank Ottinger said he plans on talking about water conservation with other board members as they continue discussing the project.
"There's not a lot of incentive to conserve water when it's so cheap," he said. "That's the luxury of living in a water-rich environment."
Board member Tom O'Connor said he thinks the city should focus on encouraging people in Columbia to use less water.
"Water use has leveled off and gone down a little bit so we're actually using less water," O'Connor said. "We're in a great position to kick in the encouraging conservation."
Deciding on a plan
Part of the city's task with expanding the plant is anticipating how water treatment regulations will change in the future, and plan ahead for any stricter regulations that might pop up.
The city is basing its decision on an engineering plan that outlines six options for expanding the treatment plant.
The different choices the city has for expanding the plant deal with different water treatment processes. The pricier plans treat the water for more chemicals, including pharmaceutical drugs and other household products that might be in the water.
The least-expensive option presented to the board would cost the city about $65 million and continues the treatment process the treatment plant uses now.
"It's not just a simple, 'Let's go with the cheapest,'" Kacprowicz said. "Water is something everyone is dependent on."
Windsor said the price of water will go up to help pay for the treatment plant expansion, but he doesn't yet know by how much.
"Part of it is how much funds the water department has available, versus how much we have to bond for," he said. "Before a bond issue is proposed, we will determine what the impact is and tell voters how much it's going to cost."