Water wonders

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL
Water is the most basic necessity of life, but possibly the one resource of nature most often taken for granted.

Last summer’s blue-green algae bloom, which temporarily shut down water production in Hillsboro, helped area residents appreciate the availability of safe, clean tap water.

A cutting-edge water treatment plant-and a committed staff to operate it-intend to keep it flowing.

“We have a city council and governing body that believes in and supports our water plant,” said Morgan Marler, senior water treatment plant technician for Hillsboro. “They give us the funds we need to produce high-quality water.”

Marler, a five-year veteran with the city, came to Hillsboro after graduating from Southwestern College with a bachelor of science degree in biology, a minor in chemistry, and a master’s degree in environmental studies.

“I taught college biology and chemistry for six years, but it just became too repetitious,” she said. “When I took this job, I thought I’d do it for a year until I found something in my field-but I’ve been here ever since.

“When I applied for a job with the city, it was the first time I’d ever seen a water plant,” she added. “But it’s a really good job and I love it.”

Marler heads a four-person department that includes Gene Bowers, Tom Siebert and Steve Millett. Operating with an annual budget that exceeds $730,000, they form a comprehensive team of trained technicians.

But transforming the recreational waters of Marion Reservoir into crystal clear tap water for both Hillsboro and Peabody-the Hillsboro plant supplies both communities-doesn’t happen on its own.

The process starts with piping the water from the reservoir to the treatment plant.

“We have three pumps that pump water into our plant,” Marler said. “When we have all three pumps pumping, we’ll bring in about 1,040 gallons per minute. That’s about 1.4 million gallons per day. The line itself has a 2-million-gallon capacity.”

Marler said a variable speed drive was put on one pump to adjust the speed of the water that flows into the plant during winter months.

“That way we can run the plant 24 hours a day and just bring in a little bit of water all day long,” she said. “When you slow down the treatment process, the chemicals work better, you cut back on chemical costs, you backwash the filters less often, and you don’t have the plant continually kicking on and kicking off.”

All incoming water is metered as it enters Phase 1 of the treatment process, which is the flash mixer.

“It’s kind of a holding tank,” Marler said. “The water is in there for about 30 seconds with a high-speed mixer and we add chemicals at this point.”

From there, it’s on to the 233,000-gallon solid-contact upflow clarifier.

“The water goes through about 10 feet of carbon sludge that helps trap total organic carbons and various solids,” she said. “The carbon helps with the odor and the algae.”

After the clean water works its way to the top of the clarifier, it travels back into a set of filters.

“That cleans the water in its final stages,” Marler said. “The clean water then goes into underground storage, or clear-well storage.”

Both Hillsboro and Peabody have separate clear-well tanks.

“Hillsboro’s clear well holds 216,000 gallons while Peabody’s has a capacity of 360,000 gallons,” she said. “Peabody’s is much bigger than ours, but we can switch valves and draw water from their clear well.”

Marler said the water Peabody purchases isn’t metered until it passes through the lines and enters its storage facility at Peabody. The line between Hillsboro and Peabody holds three days’ worth of water for Peabody.

Water towers provide additional storage for Hillsboro. The large tower situated in the middle of the Tabor athletic fields holds 500,000 gallons. The smaller tower near the grain elevator has a capacity of 80,000 gallons.

As expected, water usage varies according to the season and temperature.

“Peabody uses about 80,000 gallons per day while Hillsboro averages 400,000 to 500,000 gallons per day for the calendar year,” Marler said.

The single largest usage in one day was March 7, when the Hillsboro Mennonite Brethren Church building burned.

“We used about 1 million gallons that day, but we’ve also used almost 900,000 gallons on a hot summer day.”

Marler said Hillsboro’s plant is uncommonly equipped.

“We’re one of the few systems that is fully automated and not manned 24 hours a day,” she said. “We have a lot of alarm systems built in, so if something happens during the night and we’re not here, a computer phone dialer will track us down and alert us.”

The radio-controlled system begins at the towers, Marler said.

“We have our dials set so once our tower reaches a set level, it’ll tell our pumps to send more water from our storage to our towers,” she said. “Once the underground storage reaches a certain level, they radio to the reservoir to kick on the pumps.

“Once the water reaches the plant, we have master meters set up to kick on the chemical injection systems to treat the incoming water.”

Marler said producing quality tap water isn’t just a staff goal-it’s required by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

“The turbidity (cleanliness of the water) is 15.0 Nephelometric Turbidity Units when it comes from the reservoir,” she said. “When it leaves here, we’re reducing that down to just 0.034.

“That means we’re getting that water 99.66 percent clean,” she said. “We have to have the water at 0.30 or cleaner when it leaves here-these are all KDHE-mandated levels.”

Although the water coming out of the plant is already top quality, Marler said tougher regulations through the Environmental Protection Agency in the near future will bring changes to the plant’s infrastructure.

The Hillsboro City Council is preparing the financing to begin a $3 million upgrade later this year.

The improvements will consist of an additional upflow clarifier, domes on clarifiers, improved raw water pumps, better chemical-injection systems, upgrading the main computer control system, adding two filters, installing an ultra-violet disinfection system, electrical improvements, adding a backup generator to run the facility when electrical lines fail, and adding distribution system lines and looping the city’s water lines.

“We’re going to be the only treatment plant in the state of Kansas to use UV disinfection,” Marler said.

With the one-year anniversary of the blue-green algae crisis approaching, Marler said she’s confident future crises can be averted.

“We’re already beginning to see some algae develop at the reservoir,” she said. “Our staff is confident the water-treatment plant can adequately remove the algal toxins that could be present.

“Last summer we made significant changes in the way we treat water during an algal event, moving our point of chlorination back as far as possible before we treat the water,” she added.

“The results showed us the City of Hillsboro can treat the water coming from the reservoir and adequately remove the toxins.”

Cleaning the water in Marion Reservoir would help reduce the onset of crisis situations.

Marler said grant money is available for farmers/producers through the Natural Resources and Conservation Service in the watershed area for nutrient management.

“There are just too many nutrients in the water,” she said. “The majority of the farmers want to be good stewards of the land and they use the best management practices they can.

“There have been a lot of terracing and filter strips done in the watershed recently that has cut down on the sediment loading.”

Approximately 133,000 pounds of phosphorous flow into the reservoir every year, according to recent studies. The goal is to reduce that by 75 percent.

Also on the horizon is a study into the feasibility of a Regional Wholesale Supply to meet area water needs.

“We’ve entered into an agreement with the City of Marion to study the feasibility of forming a combined system that would be able to wholesale to other communities in the county as the need arises,” Marler said.

“This comes at a critical time for both communities, as we’re both facing major improvements due to impending regulations by the EPA.”

Maintaining a quality product while holding down production costs is Marler’s goal.

“We’ve really whittled down the amount of chemicals we use,” Marler said. “That’s something Gene and I are always trying to do-to think outside the box on some of our treatment chemicals so we can reduce our cost of production.”

Marler said she along with the city, welcomes input from Hillsboro and Peabody residents concerning the quality of their water.

“Citizens are encouraged to call the city with taste or odor complaints so we know if we have a problem,” she said. “It’s hard to make adjustments unless people tell us there’s a problem.

“We think the quality of water we produce is excellent and we strive to keep it that way.”

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