City News

Salem secures financing for new ozone-based water treatment, plans underway

The city of Salem pictured in the summer. Salem City Council recently voted to increase utility rates, which will help finance a new $56 million overhaul of its water treatment facilities. (Salem Reporter files)

When toxins seeped into taps of Salem homes over the summer, bottled water served as a quick fix. City engineers needed something more permanent.

That solution will soon arrive. A decision Monday night by the Salem City Council to increase utility rates by 3 percent will help pay for a $56 million overhaul of the Geren Island water treatment facility.

The fee increase gives Salem more money in the future, allowing the city to finance the renovations through debt. The city will sell revenue bonds to investors, earning money quickly in the short-term but with a promise to pay back later with interest. This is the first time Salem has issued revenue bonds since 2008.

Headlining the renovations is an estimated $40 million ozone treatment facility. Ozone, already used in cities like Wilsonville, Lake Oswego and Tigard, dissolves in water and destroys bacteria and viruses.

“Ozone treatment rose to the top as the safest and probably most cost-efficient option,” said Keith Kuenzi, assistant city manager. “We’ve heard this is the best technology to date.”

About $13 million will pay to expand groundwater capacity and the remaining $3 million will buy system upgrades and better flood protection. Renovations could be completed as soon as December 2020.

The idea was hatched in late May, when city executives, staffers and contract engineers worked nonstop to quell the toxic algal bloom in Detroit Lake that infiltrated city drinking water for the first time.

Kuenzi said staff worked nonstop at the time to wither the algae, but knew an upgrade to the city’s slow-sand filtration system was needed if the blooms were to become more common.

 “A lot of weekends were changed around, things set aside. One of our engineers had a home remodeling project he had to set aside while working at Geren Island,” he told Salem Reporter. “Seven days a week, late evenings, early mornings.”

“There were definitely personal impacts,” he added. “But with the importance of drinking water being our life source here, I think everyone understood the importance of having a system up and running that would deliver potable water.”

Powder-activated carbon stopped the bloom. The powder will continue to be dosed into the water each summer until the ozone treatment facility is done.

John Kennedy, whose job it is to hire and oversee contractors for the city of Salem, said a prime contractor to take on the redevelopment project will be hired this year. Construction could start by December 2019.

Until then, Kennedy and Kuenzi will search out designers to help blueprint the project and hire a contractor build it.

“We know ozone is the right treatment plan,” Kennedy said. “What type of building, what types of structures, we don’t know that yet.”

The city council will also be asked to approve parts of the construction process. A prime contractor could be hired by spring.

The ozone likely won’t be noticed to untrained eyes. The facility might only be 40 square feet, a small footprint on Geren Island in Stayton that houses several 2.5-acre treatment ponds.

When that facility is built, it will house a concrete basin through which water streams through and is shot with a gaseous stream of ozone that attacks microbes and then dissipates. Jude Grounds, an engineer who has helped build such facilities around Oregon, said no ozone escapes into the atmosphere.

Ozone won’t work on every bacterial strain, Kennedy said, so the city will also selectively add and remove chlorine to wipe out ozone-resistant organisms.

But water quality, a point of pride for the region’s residents and governments, will stay pristine, they added. Kuenzi said ozone treatment doesn’t alter the smell or taste of the water, and any chlorine will be long removed by the time it gets to the taps, Kennedy said.

“We’re trying to cover all of our bases. We won’t use the (chlorine) unless we need to,” Kennedy said.

Until then, the city plans to continue using powder-activate carbon if toxic algae shows up in the next two summers.

“Hopefully it won’t be as bad,” Kuenzi said.

Have a tip? Contact reporter Troy Brynelson at 503-357-3207, [email protected] or @TroyWB.