A major infrastructure improvement for the city of Philomath appears to be on the horizon with discussions of a new, higher-capacity water treatment plant becoming more of a reality.
For years, city officials have been aware of the need to replace the current plant, a facility built in 1985 that has become outdated and requires excessive maintenance to stay up and running. It's identified as a top priority in the city's current water master plan and will again hold that distinction in an updated version expected to be completed by this summer.
"It's not just a matter of the current plant's falling apart, it's 30-plus years old, it's also just the technology that it's using is really not going to be sufficient," Philomath City Manager Chris Workman said.
An abbreviated version of a public works committee consisting of councilors Doug Edmonds and Jerry Jackson met with Workman, public works director Kevin Fear and operations supervisor Garry Black Thursday afternoon to discuss a Westech Engineering proposal that estimates the project's budget at $12.7 million.
Westech, the city's engineer of record since 2004, provided a recommended budget of $9.1 million for the new water treatment plant and another $3.6 million for a new storage tank.
"Their recommendation is to switch technology to membrane filtration," said Workman, referring to the process that separates contaminants from water. "This is the newer technology; it's what 90 percent of all new plants are being built to. It does a much better job of filtering the water, especially groundwater."
Workman said the current plant does fine with filtering water out of the Marys River, but added, "If we were to do anything with going down and getting groundwater, we're going to need to go with the membrane filtration plant."
The plant construction portion of the project also features improvements to the existing intake structure as well as the backwash ponds. A new high-service station to pump treated water to the Neabeack Hill Reservoir is also included.
The proposal calls for a concrete storage tank located near the treatment plant, a change from earlier versions that suggested storage to be located in the Starlite Village vicinity.
"Just to do the engineering on the plant alone, the initial estimate was in the range of $90,000," Workman said. "That's going to be a year's worth of work for the engineers to basically design the plant, design all the valves, all the levers, get all the pressures right and just to do all that work."
Fear said the $90,000 figure gets the project to the construction stage and includes all of the various permits that would be needed.
The new water treatment plant would more than double its capacity from about 1 million gallons per day to 2.5 million gallons per day.
"Our issue right now is the ability to suck the water out and treat that water quickly enough that we can provide it to the system," Workman said. "That's the bottleneck ... this doubles our capacity."
Further expansion could also occur several years down the road, if needed, to bring the capacity up to 3.75 million gallons per day, although Workman said "you're talking about a lot of growth."
Westech's Chris Brugato said the budget includes soft costs, such as engineering, administration and permits, along with a 10 percent contingency. In addition, the numbers assume that construction would begin in 2020. If that timetable becomes a reality, the plant could be going online over the summer of 2021.
"It's real dollars, it's a very hefty price tag for a community our size," Workman said.
Joan Swanson, the city's finance director, reached out to Business Oregon's Infrastructure Finance Authority and Workman said she had received a verbal confirmation that the city would be able to finance the entire project.
"It sounds like with her initial numbers, they would be able to finance it for less than what we would have to pay for with a bond," Workman said. "We'll work through the numbers as we get a little bit closer."
The Business Oregon Infrastructure Finance Authority was created by the state to provide financing for such projects at lower interest rates, Workman said.
To help pay for the new plant, residents will likely see higher water rates.
"We'll know those numbers more as we get closer," Workman said. "We always give conservative numbers and so we're going to give numbers that are higher than hopefully what they end up coming in at but you really don't know until you've bid the project and you complete the project as to what your actual costs end up being."
Workman said the city will look at overall utility bills.
"Staff is going to prepare different options for the council to look at and consider with that," Workman said. "So maybe a water increase is offset by something somewhere else, where if there's another fund that's doing OK, maybe we can offset. At the minimum, we just don't want to raise rates any more than what we have to, but we've got to pay for the project."
Workman and Fear described Philomath's current water rates as "middle of the pack." Neighboring Corvallis has some of the lowest water rates in the state while other cities, such as Adair Village and Lebanon, have rates on the higher side.
System development charges also come into play with helping pay for the upgrade.
"With a treatment plant like this, you're building for 50-plus years out," Workman said. "So it's going to be built to a larger capacity, which means we can utilize system development charges to pay for it."
For example, every house that's built in town requires a water SDC that's more than $8,000. When new subdivisions come into the city, the developer pays for infrastructure costs.
"This will help reduce the amount that we have to increase utility fees for current users because you'll have more new users coming in," Workman said. "Not only do they pay the SDCs, but now you've got new water users that are also paying utility fees that are helping pay it off."
During the 2016 Chapel Drive annexation hearings, several residents debated that Philomath needs to build its infrastructure first before any new development comes in. The other side of that view is that the burden then falls on existing residents.
Workman said the water treatment plant's proposed budget doesn't have a whole lot of room for any cuts.
"This is the plant that we need for the size that we are," Workman said. "There's no gold-plated doorknobs in here ... this is what it is and what it costs to put a plant together. There's some contingency built into these numbers and you need that contingency in there, but this is what it's going to cost to do the plant."
One possibility could be to build the plant now and add the new storage tank later. But Workman said the city is already deficient when it comes to its fire suppression capabilities with what should be in storage.
Workman said the city council could wait for this summer's water master plan update before moving forward, although he said, "My concern is the timing. We've got a failing plant and to do something that substantial" involves years.
Fear estimated that it would take about a year for construction.
"I think we just go get it done," Edmonds said. "I think the rate increases, that is a concern, so I just think we need to look carefully at the numbers when we do get the full plan. I don't think waiting is the right answer."
The water treatment plant has been on the table for years but was pushed to the back burner when the 2008 recession hit.
"The only reason we've not had to build the plant sooner is because we haven't had the residential growth and business growth," Workman said. "We haven't grown here substantially these last 10 years, so we've been able to get by with the capacity it's putting out."
A side note to the upgrade involves federal drinking water standards, which have become tougher and tougher over the years.
"With our current treatment plant and just the technology and based on our water sources and everything else combined, we just are meeting that threshold now," Workman said. "And if the standard is raised, where most people in the public works arena think it's going to go, we will struggle with the current plant to meet that standard, if we meet it at all."
Edmonds believes a work session might be a good idea to discuss the topic further before it moves on to the city council. Rate increases, moving forward independently of the water master plan and the Corvallis water deal are all subjects that should be looked at, he said.
All at the meeting agreed that the project must be held to high standards.
"I think you do it right," Edmonds said. "There are some things maybe you shave here and there, but your foundation that you need to have in place needs to be solid."
Added Fear, "You can't go in cheap ... you've got to do what's required and do it right the first time around."