Modernizing Cedar Rapids water plant one of many high-cost needs

Annual utility rate increases just one solution to funding upgrades

 

CEDAR RAPIDS — The Cedar Rapids northeast water plant is in the midst of a “generational” overhaul, but many residents likely don’t even realize it.

It’s part of a multiyear, multimillion-dollar sequenced modernization of the 90-year-old J Avenue NE water plant that produces nearly 27 million gallons of water per day over the summer.

The city’s water system upgrades are among the most significant in a heavy docket of capital improvement needs in the utilities division estimated to cost more than $250 million from fiscal 2020 through 2024.

At the J Avenue plant, two of the six water treatment basins where the softening process occurs have been drained so the concrete base can be replaced. When the two basins are updated, two more will be taken offline for similar treatment, and with any luck residents will never notice that either.

“I can’t emphasize enough we have to be in production all the time,” Tariq Baloch, water utility plant manager, said while walking past some of the basins original to the 1929 plant on Wednesday. “People have to be able to drink water. We have to balance out our schedule so there’s no interruption to system demand at all.”

In Cedar Rapids, utility leaders are faced with a challenge: continue out-of-sight, out-of-mind services that are fundamental to quality of life — such as water — while making critical upgrades without any disruptions to thousands of residents.

In some cases, such as at the J Avenue plant, the work is necessary so the aging plant can last another 90 years. In others, routine maintenance is needed to prevent future problems. Some improvements are necessary to keep up with ever-changing state and federal standards, and others are to anticipate future population and development growth.

“This is what the city does,” said Steve Hershner, Cedar Rapids utilities director. “Whether it’s streets, whether it’s water, whether it’s wastewater, there’s a life span. And, we’re going to attack those problems from a regular maintenance standpoint, or to meet regulatory needs, and be ready for growth. So all of that feeds into this. It’s not just an age issue. I think that short changes the fact that we have to manage all of these processes in a seamless state.”

 
 
 

The estimated $250.3 million in improvements needed in the utilities division include:

• Water: $83.9 million total, including $12.6 million in fiscal 2020, which begins on July 1. Beyond the J Avenue plant modernization, large items include replacing the booster motor at that plant, a softener addition at the northwest water plant, and water main replacement throughout the city as part of street repair projects.

• Water pollution control: $97.5 million total, including $9.09 million in fiscal 2020. High-ticket items include additional centrifuges and upgrading outdated equipment.

• Stormwater: $18 million total, including $3.4 million in fiscal 2020. New and expanded detention basins are the costliest items.

• Sanitary sewer: $50.9 million total, including $10.6 million in fiscal 2020. Extending, repairing and lining sanitary sewer pipes are the top items on the budget outlook.

 
 

If all of the identified needs were tackled in the five-year time frame, the city would need to increase the utility rate 10 percent to 15 percent annually to pay for it, according to the city’s fiscal 2020 budget book.

That scale of an increase is unlikely, though, and all the needs are not likely to be addressed in that time frame.

“These are only projections,” said Casey Drew, the city’s finance director. “All we’re doing when we do those estimates is kind of give a worst-case scenario.”

Some projects may end up being less expensive than estimated or may be pushed to the future as critical needs get re-evaluated by staff, he said. Other funding streams could be identified to help pay for projects, too, Drew said.

Utility rate increases will likely continue as they have in recent years, which range from a 2.2 percent increase in fiscal 2016 to 5.1 percent increase in fiscal 2017, 2018 and 2020. This has translated to increases of $20 to $60 over the course of the year for the average residential customer.

Large costs are on the horizon beyond that, as well.

Once the five phases of the J Avenue water plant upgrades are complete — estimated to cost $40 million — leaders will turn to expanding the northwest water plant, a project estimated to cost upward of $30 million.

Staff are expected to work with the City Council in the coming weeks and months to prioritize the needs in future years and payment strategies.

“What we are trying to avoid is a major item where a large number comes up in one year,” said Scott Olson, a City Council member and infrastructure committee chairman. “We do something every year so we don’t have that big surprise.”

Comments: (319) 398-8310; brian.morelli@thegazette.com