In my last Sustainability Spotlight article, I examined the new Water Treatment facility in Morris, discussed reasoning behind why a new WTP was needed, and reviewed the results of implementing a new water treatment process as they pertain to chloride pollution in the Pomme de Terre river. In this article I want to dive deeper into the importance of resilient water treatment infrastructure. I will also examine what can go wrong when water treatment plants are effected by extreme weather. Finally, I will present options that could one day make our water treatment plants more resilient to the effects of extreme weather.
Around the world each day, more than 785 million people lack access to clean, and accessible water. This is equal to around 1 in 10 people not having clean water to drink. Throughout human history, water more than any other resources have been at the center of wars, political disputes, and international scrutiny. However, throughout the 20th and 21st century, Americans have been able to access clean water at a high rate. In 2019 over 97% of Americans had access to clean water. In the 21st century though, we still witness water systems in America failing the people they were meant to serve.
Perhaps most notably is the ongoing water crisis in Flint, MI. This water crisis occurred when the city of flint switched the source of their water from the City of Detroit to the Flint River. This switch was done mainly to save money. However, after the switch occurred, residents of flint dealt with years of boil water notices and carcinogenic contamination. And in 2015 it was discovered that the water from the flint river was leaching lead out of old pipes and causing lead levels in Flint’s water to reach more than 25 times the level considered safe. Soon after this discovery, although it costed the city money, they chose to switch their water source back to the city of Detroit.
In 2022, the resident of Jackson, MS discovered what can happen when extreme weather overpowers their source of clean drinking water. In August of 2022, torrential rainfall overpowered the reservoir that Jackson pulls their water from. This caused pumps at their main water treatment facility to fail. Neglected pipes and additional water infrastructure also failed after years of divestment related to white flight from the city. This caused many issues for the city’s residents, making it impossible to draw water from home taps due to the city’s water towers and other treated water storage facilities being empty and unable to pressurize the city’s taps. This caused problems ranging from being unable to flush toilets to dispose of human waste to being unable to drink any water that didn’t come from a plastic bottle for weeks. Although some temporary fixes have been made, this water crisis is still ongoing an as it fades from national headlines, donations and sources of funding to get residents clean water has dried up.
In the spring of 2022 the city of Morris came dangerously close to losing an essential piece of our own water infrastructure. Although both the water treatment plant and waste water treatment plant have backup generators in case of power failure, these generators can sometimes still fail. In the case of the May 2022 wind storm, when loss of power from the grid occurred, the generator at the water treatment plant came online to meet the needs of the water treatment. However, the generator at the waste water treatment facility, the one that handles raw sewage, failed. The generator became overheated and the motor seized causing the pumps to stop running. In the dark, City of Morris water plant employees bypass pumped raw sewage onto the ground around the plant while they worked to get the generator up and running again. If they had not been able to get the generator running again, a disaster would have ensued. Sewage would have begun to back up into residential homes and could have cost the city tens of millions of dollars in damages. Alternatively, raw sewage would bypass the pumps at the waste water plant and be allowed to drain through the ground water and enter the Pomme de Terre river and causing extensive contamination of the river. Luckily, City of Morris employees were able to restore the generator and avoided a major disaster. However, while grid power was restored to the residential areas of the City of Morris the next day, the waste water treatment plant did not get grid power restored for 3.5 days. This meant that the only thing protecting our waste water treatment was a single generator for more than 3 days.
Because of this and the general increase in extreme weather occurring across MN and the USA, Morris has decided to begin looking into installing solar energy and eventually battery storage at the Water and Waste Water treatment plants. The initial idea to add solar to our water treatment facilities actually came from the report that a German intern produced last summer. In that report they recommended installing a 40 kW array at the WTP to help offset the baseline energy consumption of the plant at 50 kW of demand. However, with more research and current offerings to install solar under the Inflation Reduction Act passed in 2022, Morris has decided to aim for a larger and more comprehensive approach to solar for our water treatment facilities. UMN Morris installed a 240 kW array to help further offset their operations. However, the array the Morris envisions for the plant is much larger. At 600 kW it would be the largest array installed in Ottertail’s service area in Western MN. Additionally, the project would add 90 kW of solar to the waste water treatment facility. Installing these larger solar arrays will have an outsized impact on long term operating costs; currently we pay over $80,000 per year for electricity for these two facilities. These arrays will also pave the way to one day add large scale battery storage to the plants. This would not only allow the plants to run off of renewable energy at night, but it would also allow the plants to island themselves in the case of another major power outage and would allow them to continue operating separate from the grid.
As Morris continues to develop and grow as a city, we look forward to future proofing our infrastructure further to help ensure a safe and reliable community for decades to come.
Pictured Above: Morris Waste Water Treatment Facility. Orange outline shows location of future solar arrays.
This article was originally published in the Stevens County Times on 2/7/23
My work with the City of Morris is made possible from an ENRTF grant distributed by the LCCMR. Learn More Here: https://www.legacy.mn.gov/environment-natural-resources-trust-fund