San Angelo's Politics of Potty Water

 

The San Angelo Water Treatment Plant is a sight to behold. It’s a secured area, so visits are escorted. The City’s Water Plant Operations Manager Tymm Combest was happy to give the full tour this past week.

The plant was originally built on the western banks of the Concho River in the 1920s near the intersection of Avenue J and Metcalf Street. Today, it treats water from several sources: water from the O.H. Ivie Reservoir near Brownwood that is piped in underneath Avenue J from an interconnection to the greater Colorado River Municipal Water District’s (CRMWD) 600 miles of pipe that haul water across West Texas; from Lake J.B Thomas; and the E.V. Spence reservoirs; and the Concho River itself.

The existing plant experienced expansion in the 1950s, adding to its capacity from 10 million gallons per day (MGD) of water to 30. In the 1980s, a south plant was added increasing output to 42 MGD.

Down on the banks of the Concho River, the water treatment plant can harvest water directly from the river. Combest pointed to the series of pumping units on the water’s edge near a small containment dam.

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Above: An aerial view of the City of San Angelo Water Treatment plant (top is facing east). The north plant was built in the 1920s; middle plant built in 1950s; and the south plant was built in the 1980s. The Hickory aquifer plant (not pictured in this dated aerial photo) is located next to the road to Lone Wolf Bridge on the south side of the complex. (City of San Angelo photo).

Interestingly, the Red Arroyo, a stream of rushing storm water considered an option for increasing San Angelo’s water supply at least during and after significant rains, historically emptied into the Concho River upstream of the water treatment plant’s intake pumps on the river. As the federal and state environmental water quality standards were tightened starting in the 1970s, using water direct from the Concho was impossible after large rainfalls because of the storm runoff’s contamination introduced into the Concho by the Red Arroyo.

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Above: An aerial view of the Red Arroyo Diversion Canal that directs the city storm water to empty into the Concho beyond where the city’s water treatment plant’s intake of Concho River water is located. (COSA)

Above: Google Earth's view of the San Angelo Water Treatment Plant.

“Way back when, you’d get away with a turbidity level of 1.0. It was halved in the ‘80s I believe. Today, that number can’t be higher than a 0.3,” Combest explained. In San Angelo, turbidity, a measurement of “soil runoff, clay, dissolved organic matter” in the water, hangs out at a level of just 0.12 Nephelometric Turbidity Units, or “ntu.” The highest it gets is 0.25 ntu according to the City of San Angelo’s 2013 Consumer Confidence Report.

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Above: Looking north from the Lone Wolf Bridge at the Red Arroyo Diversion Canal delivering storm water downstream from the water treatment plant’s intake area on the Concho River. (LIVE! Photo/Joe Hyde))

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Above: Looking north from Lone Wolf Bridge at the intake area contained by a small dam. In the upper center of the photo, you can see Red Arroyo storm water emptying into the Concho downstream of the treatment plant’s intake. (LIVE! Photo/Joe Hyde)

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Above: A close up view of Red Arroyo storm water emptying into the Concho River downstream of the plant’s intake pumps. (LIVE! Photo/Joe Hyde)

At a May 10 Water Advisory Board presentation, Combest said the turbidity of Red Arroyo runoff is estimated to be very high, in the 50-3,000 ntu levels, far exceeding the capabilities of the old, original water treatment plant’s sand and charcoal filtration system.

Combest explained that in order to be able to treat water to the tightened standards, the Red Arroyo’s mouth into the Concho River had to be diverted downstream from the plant’s intake area more than 20 years ago. That way, the dirty storm water runoff wouldn’t have to be treated by the old plant.

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Above: Chains and gears still turn giant paddle wheels in water holding tanks at the City of San Angelo Water Treatment Plant that is approaching 100 years old. (LIVE! Photo/Joe Hyde)

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Above: A close-up view of the gears and chains running the water circulation at the City of San Angelo Water Treatment Plant. (LIVE! Photo/Joe Hyde)

Combest compared keeping the old plant running was akin to duct tape, improvisation and custom fabrication. Since there aren’t any spare parts on the open market, the City has to make its own parts for repairs. And while many of the processes and chemicals have been upgraded, and modern monitoring equipment and new holding pools have been added over the years, the fact remains that San Angelo is surviving on water treatment from a facility that is approaching 100 years old.

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Above: A bending pipe brace holding up a large water main underneath the filtration building. (LIVE! Photo/Joe Hyde)

Combest was the plant manager for the newer, state-of-the-art City of Brady water treatment facility for a number of years. He marvels at the difference a “R.O.” facility makes. R.O. is water engineering slang for reverse osmosis, a process that is used in the newer Hickory water treatment facility next door to the 100-year-old one.

R.O. is also how the proposed water reclamation, or toilet-to-tap, or more plainly spoken “potty water treatment” plant will operate.

R.O. makes very pure water. Depending on the size of the micro-screens and the strength of the chemicals used to clean the water, it is “pure H2O” Combest said.

Turbidity = 0.0.

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Above: Deep underneath the filtration building, old 1950s-era pipes are getting a new coat of primer to maintain them. (LIVE! Photo/Joe Hyde)

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Above: Stamped numbers on the large water pipes underneath the water filtration building gives a clue of when this section of pipe was put into service. (LIVE! Photo/Joe Hyde)

Combest is not directly in the fight over the proposed $150 million water reclamation project. The San Angelo City Council has yet to approve the capital investment and two sides are converging in the water fight of the decade over the cost, effectiveness, safety and if we really need one. Instead, Combest serves as a subject matter expert of how all of these plants and water sources work together.

If the water reclamation project is approved, he pointed to the south side of the old circa-1920s building where the labs are located.

“We could take out that clarifier (a large, round, above-ground top-open concrete water pool) over there and make room to place it,” he said, pointing to an area between the old treatment facility and the sparkling new Hickory R.O. facility.

We traveled nearer to the Hickory water treatment facility and saw a large pipe that delivers the water from the deep wells in McCulloch County to be treated.

“You have to watch your PSI (pounds per square inch) in these lines,” he said. If it rises too high, the risk is a system or pipe breakage somewhere down the 65-mile pipeline into San Angelo. Combest is proud of the state-of-the-art system of pumps and pipes, but warns he doesn’t believe it can carry the full load of San Angelo’s daily water needs continuously without the river or the Ivie water supplementing it.

“These pipes go down from time-to-time, any pipe,” he said. Pointing to the ground track of the Ivie water mains approaching the water plant, Combest explained that even the Ivie supply is interrupted from time-to-time for scheduled maintenance, a broken pump or a leak.

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Above: Just north of the Avenue L bridge over the Concho River is where the Red Arroyo formerly emptied into the Concho River. It was diverted years ago because the current technology at the water treatment plant could not treat Concho water to the required turbidity levels in accordance with environmental regulations during and after rainfall in San Angelo. (LIVE! Photo/Joe Hyde)

“I heard someone suggest we pump 13.5 million gallons per day out of the Hickory. I don’t think that is sustainable. The system was designed for around 12 million gallons per day at peak capacity,” he said.

San Angelo needs about 12.5 million gallons of treated water per day with its current population.

The Politics

Mayor Dwain Morrison isn’t seeking re-election and sits in a good position to give his honest assessment of the current debate over the proposed $150 million water reclamation treatment plant.

“I’m tired of spending money,” he said. “That $136 million went to $150 million. How?”

Morrison wants better information. “A good positive estimate,” he said.

In defense of the City’s staff, the $136 million figure was the estimated amount of money the city thought it needed to capitalize with increased cash flow from its 33,000 water customers by hiking their water rates. In other words, loan payments for a $136 million capex water project was baked into the pro-forma cash flow that the higher water rates provided.

[[{"fid":"21183","view_mode":"preview","type":"media","attributes":{"alt":"A visual comparison of the water quality of various sources. Top left is the final, treated water product; top right is untreated water from O.H. Ivie reservoir; bottom left is raw Concho River water; bottom right is untreated Red Arroyo runoff. (COSA)","title":"A visual comparison of the water quality of various sources. Top left is the final, treated water product; top right is untreated water from O.H. Ivie reservoir; bottom left is raw Concho River water; bottom right is untreated Red Arroyo runoff. (COSA)","height":"675","width":"1200","class":"media-element file-preview imgbody"}}]]
Above: A visual comparison of the water quality of various sources. Top left is the final, treated water product; top right is untreated water from O.H. Ivie reservoir; bottom left is raw Concho River water; bottom right is untreated Red Arroyo runoff. (COSA)

Nonetheless, when spending $136 million, the original figure, for water reclamation was floated, the entire political class of San Angelo exploded, as did close observers of city hall.

Morrison sees a need for procuring more water sources and believes water reclamation is the way to go. “But we need solid figures before I can sell it,” he said.

Councilwoman Elizabeth Grindstaff of Single Member District 5 (Santa Rita and College Hills) is in a heated election campaign with challenger Lane Carter. This is the current ground zero of the water debate, at least until the runoff election July 2, so she’s not reserved on where she is on the project.

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Above: Inside the circa 1920s filtration building at the City of San Angelo Water Treatment Plant. (LIVE! Photo/Joe Hyde)

It was her line of questioning city staff at a Feb. 2 council meeting that put the brakes on the city moving forward on spending $150 million on water reclamation.

Late last year, the city council approved spending $1.5 million on a pilot project for water reclamation. She said she thought the money was being spent on a feasibility study, not for the design and engineering blueprints to move forward with spending $150 million six months later. In order to design a system that cleans wastewater, you build a small facility and see what kinds of contaminants will need to be cleaned from the source. The characteristics of wastewater can be unique from city to city, so water reclamation projects are custom-designed.

Ever the cautious planner, Grindstaff said she likes the idea of having a water master plan, something the city hasn’t updated in nearly 20 years, she said.

“We have to have an idea of what water consumption may be in the future, required by the size of the future population,” she said. “That helps answer the questions about the size of capacity of anything we spend money on.”

Grindstaff said there have been no updates or a planning analysis in almost two decades, so she is in favor of spending a little money to generate an updated master water plan before agreeing to a large $150 million capital investment on any water project.

“I want to make a wise expenditure with a document in our hands that will help us make the right decisions, and address needed present and future water volume,” she said.

The development of a new water master plan, approved 6-1 at the last council meeting, will cost $315,000. The mayor was the dissenting vote.

Grindstaff also wants to examine the outcome of the Hickory project before proceeding with water reclamation.

“I want to understand what the public was told about its benefits, where it stands right now, and where to go from here,” she said. “I want to understand what (former city water utilities director) Will Wilde and Carollo Engineers (hired to advise the city on the Hickory aquifer project) promised on capacity. How much we can pump per day?” she asked.

Grindstaff was an assistant city manager when the Hickory project began. “I didn’t think that once we got the ($120 million) Hickory project complete that we’d be spending another $150 million now,” Grindstaff said.

Grindstaff’s opponent Lane Carter is more emphatic.

“We can’t even afford it,” he said. “We’re not getting 100 percent of use from the Hickory right now.”

Carter is worried about the size of the debt obligations at the city.

According to the State of Texas Comptroller, the City of San Angelo carries a debt load of $192 million, or $1,940 per adult and child living inside the city limits. In comparison, the City of Abilene carries $149 million in debt, or $1,232 for every soul, child and adult alike, who lives there. 

Figure 1: Tax-Supported Debt by city as reported by the Texas Comptroller:

CityDebtDebt per Capita
San Angelo$192 million$1,940
Abilene$149 million$1,232
Brownwood$29.1 million$1,535
Del Rio$71.5 million$1,981
Midland$138 million$1,076
Odessa$143 million$1,255

Source: Texas Transparency.org

Carter claims the water reclamation investment will more than double San Angelo’s debt, but to get there, he added in the interest expense over a 30-year bond into his calculation.

“A loan at 3 percent on $136 million adds $206 million to the city’s debt,” he said.

As for his position on paying $315,000 to produce a water master plan for the city, Carter asked what the breakdown of the expenses are.

“What’s going to be studied? Why does it cost that much and who is going to do it? Why weren’t any local businesses considered to conduct these studies?” he asked. “I’m all about finding the answers to these questions before just writing a check.”

Carter believes there are less expensive opportunities in rehabilitating the 672 miles of water pipes underneath San Angelo. According to Carter, about 14 percent of the water within the distribution system is wasted by broken pipes and leaks.

Every 3.78 miles (20,000 feet) of pipe replaced costs about $1.3 million in 2014 dollars, according to the city. If that is the case, then replacing each of the 672 miles of water pipe underneath San Angelo will cost around $231 million. If the city’s estimate that 14.6 percent of water is lost in the water pipes, Carter’s idea to replace the pipe infrastructure will produce 1.83 MGD, or 666.13 million gallons of extra water per year, or less than 53 days supply during the summer months.

Water reclamation’s lowest daily volume estimate is 7 MGD, or 2.56 billion gallons per year. Combest said the Hickory can pump out 12 MGD, or 4.38 billion gallons per year.

Figure 2: Costs and Volume of water sources

Water SourceCost (estimated)Volume
Hickory$122 million8.00 MGD*
Water Reclamation$150 million7.00 MGD
City-wide water pipe replacement$230 million1.83 MGD

Note: The Hickory water treatment plant can only treat 8 MGD. Though the pipeline can deliver more. See Joe Hyde's comment below this article.

But right now, the Hickory flows at only a trickle, just enough to keep the water treatment plant and pipes lubricated. The city is using surface water from Ivie primarily, and that has some citizens concerned, including Grindstaff.

The decision to withhold pumping Hickory and to bank many of the past years’ water allotment has San Angelo sitting on over 40,000 acre-feet of banked Hickory water, or over 13.03 billion gallons.

“I’m not sure banking Hickory water should be solely a (city water utilities director Bill) Riley decision,” she said. “The council should ultimately make that decision.”

She said, “It’s all about money, really.”

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Comments

It does not take a genius to figure out paying for a completely new water treatment plant now would be cheaper in the long run. 2016 or 2017 prices vs. 2020 prices! Good grief, 100 yr. old building with 65 yr. old pipes. Wake up people, design and build a modern up to date total water plant now and save us for higher taxes and dog fights down the road. P.S. - The current plant has a lot more things wrong with it than was shown in pictures, I've seem them.

McChupith McVergath, Mon, 05/23/2016 - 10:37

60% of our water is being lost from corroded pipes... And that everyone on that city counsel is serving the best interests of their bureaucratic constituents and NOT of the general public... My town is the direct result of white privilege and total incompetence.

Mr. Hyde, thank you for clarifying just what the upgrade to the Hickory Plant might cost. If we are able to treat 8 MGD right now, I say leave it as is. My biggest concern is the idea of a water reclamation project that will be extremely costly and not necessarily needed at this time. I prefer we work on making infrastructure repairs and also upgrading the old water treatment plant as it is necessary for the delivery of the water we currently use. The Hickory Plant is new so there should not be a need for upgrades at this time. It is obvious that in order to accomplish this, water rate increases will have to be considered. It is really sad that our current City Council cannot seem to take control of this situation and come up with a plan that makes sense. All of this jumping around from one project to another and spending money foolishly is getting the City of San Angelo, TX no where. Clearly a "SAD STATE OF AFFAIRS"

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