Uncertainty remains about water plant

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Craig City Engineer Bill Earley said a mistake was definitely made with the new $9 million water plant.

It's not certain whether the plant's engineers, Denver-based Tetra Tech RTW, made engineering mistakes, he said, but, at the very least, their understanding of water levels in the Yampa River and in the plant was off.

Tetra Tech officials did not return phone messages Wednesday.

After a Jan. 23 meeting between city staff and Tetra Tech, water plant operators - who are city employees - requested Earley measure water levels throughout the plant and compare them to the levels Tetra Tech used to design the plant system.

Earley found that the engineering firm based its design on water levels that are lower than what exists, which could explain why the plant's raw water pumps aren't working right.

Raw water pumps move water taken directly from the Yampa River into the plant's treatment cycle. River water is stored in an area underneath the pumps, which then move it upward into a nearby treatment station.

If the water level is high, then the pumps don't have to move it as far and don't need to expend as much energy.

The problem is, the pumps installed at the water plant are designed to move water from a lower elevation. Because the water is too high, the pumps are working too hard and shaking themselves apart.

Two of the three pumps already have been sent to Denver to be rebuilt - at a cost of $10,000 each - after functioning a short time. In those cases, the general contractor hired for the project, Cortez-based Southwest Contracting, paid for the repairs.

The third pump started making noise recently, and Earley said it likely will need to be rebuilt, too, though it's unclear who will be responsible for the repair cost.

The water plant's operators have developed a temporary fix to the problem by using a plug valve to partially close the pipe into the first treatment chamber. This puts more back pressure against the pumps and keeps them operating stably.

There is another issue, though.

Tetra Tech's anticipated high water mark is more than two feet lower than the plant's actual low water mark.

Water flows in the Yampa River are significantly reduced in the winter months because most precipitation remains frozen on the ground.

Later this spring and summer, when the snowmelt begins to drain into the river basin, water levels in the plant will go up, Earley said, which could make the pump problem worse.

The higher the water gets under the pumps, the more unstable they will operate unless the city closes the plug valve more and more. Officials worry that might keep the plant from processing as much water as the city needs because the valve won't allow enough water through.

Earley and City Manager Jim Ferree, who also was present at last week's meeting with Tetra Tech, said the engineering firm thinks using the valve with an automated computer system would allow the city to meet its needs throughout the year.

City officials don't want to leave it to chance.

The water plant has to be able to function 24 hours a day, Earley said. There is no alternative other than not having water, and that's not an option, he added.

Because there were not any answers after the meeting with Tetra Tech, Earley and Ferree said their uneasiness with the plant has not gone away.

The potential solutions also remain the same.

If the plant needs one or more new pumps, they could be about the same cost as the three already installed, which ran $50,000 each, not including shipping or installation, Earley said.

A computer-operated system to control pump pressure - the kind Tetra Tech believes will work - could be cheaper or just as expensive, Earley added.

It is not yet known who would pay for those repairs, either.

The water plant has cost about $9.4 million so far, which includes about $1 million paid to Tetra Tech for engineering and inspections.

Out of that cost, the city spent $331,140 to cover additional, unforeseen expenses. That exceeds the original contingency of $200,000, or about 2.5 percent of the total plant cost.

City officials do not plan to use any taxpayer dollars other than water usage fees to pay for any part of the plant, including the loan on the plant's construction, Earley said.

The city borrowed $6 million to pay for the plant, which it paired with $1.5 million in Water Department revenues and a $1 million grant from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs.

However, it's not entirely clear where the city will get money to pay for any new renovations at the water plant, if it is responsible for fixing the current pump problem.

The city anticipates the water fund will be about $1.2 million after it receives all 2008 service payments. It is required to keep $500,000 in the fund, which is equal to one year's debt payment, Ferree said.

Officials also like to keep three months worth of operating expenses on hand - about $1 million - in case revenue stops coming in for some reason, Ferree said.

The city already is behind that goal, and another couple hundred thousand dollars would put it further behind.

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