Water Projects Focus of Saline City Council at Monday's meeting

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The City of Saline's new engineer Tesha Humphriss talks about the water reliability study that Tetra Tech will conduct.

Saline City Council spent the majority of Monday's meeting addressing drinking water issues.

Council voted 7-0 to award Hydromax USA the $45,760 water valve assessment, testing and information management program project. The council also voted unanimously to approve Tetra Tech's proposal to conduct a water reliability study for $29,800.

Council spent about an hour considering a proposal to install new "smart" water meters - a proposal that, if fully adopted, could cost the city about $1.7 million over the next 10 years. Some members of council and city staff appear to be moving toward a compromise which might see the city install smart meters in phases, with the first phase including the industrial areas which generally consume more water. Council is still waiting to review bids from a second company. Those bids are expected by the Dec. 20 meeting, when council could make a decision.

Talking about both action items, city staff talked about the need for getting a handle on its water system if it's going to solve issues like the rust-colored water.

DPW Director Larry Sirls described what the water valve assessment program would provide the city.

"This is a positive program to start attacking water quality issues. One of the greatest first steps you can take is to find out what's here. This program will assess each valve in the city and them dump the data back into GIS (maps) and get the data back to us," Sirls said. "It's a great tool for us to know where we are at."

The project will assess the 553 mainline valves in the city's water distribution system, recommend valve repairs, work orders for recommended repairs, and provide a summary report.

Hydromax USA was the low bidder, at $45,760. There were three other bids, ranging from $58,773 to $170,581. The project, previously budgeted, will be paid for using drinking water fund dollars.

Councillor Jim Dell'Orco called the project a potentially crucial step forward to understanding and addressing the water issues Saline has faced.

Answering a question from Councillor Dawn Krause, Sirls said the recent Henry Street water issue might have been solved quicker if the DPW had more accurate information about the location of the valve they were replacing.

Answering a question from Councillor Kevin Camero-Sulak, Sirls said he wasn't sure when the last time the city had assessed its water system valves.

The assessment will provide a baseline for the city as it begins a new program of checking all of the city's valves. Answering a question from Councillor Dean Girbach, Sirls said the city will be split into fifths, and every year, the DPW will check the valves in that area.

The second action council approved was the water reliability study which will be performed by Tetra Tech. State law requires these studies be conducted every five years and the last study was conducted in 2016, also by Tetra Tech. According to a memo from new city engineer Tesha Humphriss to council, A water reliability study analyzes all water system infrastructure, including water supply wells, the water treatment plant, water distribution mains and storage towers.

"I'm particularly interested in the reliability study at this point because of the ongoing water quality issues that we have here. I've been here a month and in the time that I've spent here and this is obviously a major issue," Humphriss said.

Humphriss said she recently saw the main pulled out from under Highland Drive and that it showed corrosion build-up that had left a six-inch main with a four-inch hole.

"I do believe (the main reason for brownish water) is tuberculation - corrosion on the interior of the pipes," Humphriss said.  "It's caught in our distribution system. We need to get the slugs of stuff out of our distribution system."

Humphriss learned from city operators that two of the hydrants weren't opened. She said she's concerned some of the valves are closed.

In relation to the other action item, Humpriss said the city doesn't know where all their valves are located and if they are open. Without understanding that, they can't do the kind of directional hydrant flushing program that would actually remove the slugs and debris from the system.

"If we get the water model, which is part of the reliability study, calibrated to our current conditions, it will help us troubleshoot the distribution system. We go and look for closed valves," Humphriss said. "The first step to that, to getting our arms around the distribution system's  calibrated hydraulic model so we can come up with the plan and then implement it."

Answering a question from Councillor Camero-Sulak about what might have changed since the 2016 study, Humpriss said the city has grown and added new major pipe since then.

Mayor Brian Marl said the recent hydrant flushing program has reduced the frequency of water complaints, however, he said, the level of dissatisfaction remains too high.

No issue received more attention from council Monday than the proposal to change the City of Saline's water meters.  Last month, DPW Director Sirls outlined the advantages to the system:

  • The city would save 24 hours a week in staff time reading meters. (Sirls updated this to say the city spends a little more than $30,000 annually on meter reading)
  • Some existing meters have low accuracy, which means there's an element of unfairness in the way the city has its customers pay for water.
  • The system will help the city identify more lead and copper lines in accordance with state law.
  • A communication platform that can be used to alert residents about upcoming construction projects, boil water alerts, etc.
  • Integration with the city's BS&A billing software.
  • A two-way dashboard which gives the city and customers real-time information about water usage.
  • Right now, it sometimes takes 3-4 months for the city to identify a leak in the system. Often, the city finds out when a resident calls to complain about a bill $1,000 more than expected. This dashboard would notify the city and user much faster when consumption rises.

But that proposal would cost $1.7 million over 10 years. Officials from Core & Main and Master Meter spoke to council about all the advantages the system would provide, essentially reiterating many of the points made by Sirls last month. They also took questions from council.

Mike Phillips, of Master Meter, noted the new smart meters will make the most difference with the city's highest water users - usually in the industrial park.

"There's a rule out there that says, 80 percent of your water revenue comes from 20 percent of your customers, whether it's your schools, your businesses, hospitals, nursing homes, trailer parks, those type of things," Phillips said. "You've got to make sure that those are the most accurate meters."

The company recently worked with Centerville, Mich., which was losing 48 percent of its water. One of the largest water customers there is the county jail. By changing the meters at the jail, the city was able in six months to recoup the cost of changing the meters in about 500 residences, Phillips said.

This idea seemed to resonate with council members leery about changing all of the city's water meters at once.

Councillor Dell'Orco noted that when the new meters' batteries go, in 12-14 years, it would cause a problem where you have to change out all the batteries at once. Dell'Orco asked if they have any experience with customers who asked to do commercial meters before residential meters.

The company representatives said they did that in Swanton, Ohio, however, it did cost more to mobilize workers.

"This would be such a dramatic shift from our current process, it seems like it would be a good idea to test it out first. It certainly makes sense for the large, commercial applications," Dell'Orco said. "I'm not necessarily convinced about the residential, based on the impact to the ratepayer."

Councillor Janet Dillon asked Sirls if the city could integrate the new meters in only part of the city.

"Absolutely. Because right now we have a hodgepodge of three systems," Sirls said. 

Councillor Camero-Sulak asked if it was possible to install in two phases, with commercial installation first and residential installation next.

"We could do it in any number of phases that we that we like," Sirls said. He said the city might have to pay more for mobilization charges and lose money due to economies of scale.

Answering a question from Councillor Girbach, Sirls said many of Saline's water meters are more than 20 years old.

"There are some very serious issues with accuracy with positive displacement meters at that age," Sirls said.

The City of Saline is waiting for Ferguson, one of the nation's leading water distributors, to bid on the project.

Council expects the bid by its meeting Dec. 20.

Saline has about 3,500 water meters.

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