OSHKOSH – The outcry this week that proposed water utility structures would block views of the lake from the historic Washington Avenue neighborhood and adjacent residential areas stems from decisions made in the 19th century.
The breathtaking view of Lake Winnebago that some residents enjoy from their homes is made possible by the storage of part of the city’s drinking water supply in underground “clear wells”, the first of which was built in the city. 1880s. As the town’s population increased, two more clear wells were added. Water towers were also built to pressurize the distribution system in addition to increasing storage capacity.
However, since 2007, the State Department of Natural Resources has listed the city’s three clear wells as a gap in the health survey it publishes every five years.
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MNR regulations prohibit the storage of drinking water in a floodplain or below the water table. With the clear wells located so close to Lake Winnebago, the high groundwater level does not lend itself to clear wells, said public works director James Rabe.
Underground structures storing potable water are permitted but must have double or triple containment systems, which usually means being surrounded by concrete walls. This makes them more expensive than the other acceptable alternatives. While a triple content clearwell may meet MNR requirements, the Civil Service Commission values economy over aesthetics and generally approves plans that have cost benefits for the majority of taxpayers, even at the expense of a few.
It is time for the city to act, said Rabe.
“If we’re not under construction (to replace the clearwells) with the next health survey … in about three years we’ll be under administrative order to do it,” Rabe said Thursday.
It’s not that the city hasn’t tried. In 2017, a plan to replace clear wells with aboveground storage tanks and a high-lift pumping station was suspended after the PSC asked the city to justify the daily capacity of 16 million gallons of the pumping station.
“We set it up to be equal to the capacity of our water filtration plant… but the PSC said at 16 million gallons it was ‘overbuilding’,” Rabe said.
After completing a detailed study of future growth and water demand expectations, a computer model was run that generated 10,000 potential results. From there, a daily pumping capacity of 13.7 million gallons was chosen, a number that met 95% of multiple potential results, Rabe said.
Nonetheless, the PSC ended the 2017 plan and the city returned to the drawing board to create a new one.
Over the four-year timeframe, other projects in the water utility’s long-term capital improvement plan begin to compete with the 2017 plan. These will likely be combined into a single project with a single general contractor, Rabe said.
Although the city has met with the PSC and MNR about their planned lakeside water system upgrades, they have not yet submitted them.
Instead, he wanted to gauge public acceptance of the proposed 30-foot structures and got a listening ear during and after the Common Council workshop on Tuesday. Even State Representative Gordon Hintz, who moved to the neoclassical historic district of Washington Avenue, posted a critical comment on his Facebook page.
“How did they manage to needlessly demolish the iconic flashing lighthouse we all loved and leave the only place on the water treatment plant property available to build alongside the water.” It’s one of the worst planning ever, ”Hintz said Wednesday.
The lake, visible in orbiting satellite photos, may no longer be visible from the porches of some living a few blocks away.
Negative comments poured in, but Rabe gave no indication that there would be a significant change in the direction the water utility will take for the improvements. He said it made sense to install the structures along the lakeside water filtration plant, as the utility already has a lot of underground infrastructure there.
“This is the property we have. The existing underground clear wells are located there. There are a lot of existing utilities on the site and we can’t put them everywhere. It also helps us from a construction point of view to use the existing concrete (underground) structures as a kind of foundation for construction in this plan. Construction would take place in the same footprint, ”Rabe said.
This plan, in addition to replacing aging equipment, has a preliminary construction estimate of $ 26 million.
Some elected officials lobbied to change the tariff structure to meet the needs of low-consumption customers, and last fall, the Common Council authorized the search for new tariffs. However, filing a rate case with the PSC remains in a few years, Rabe said.
The city would seek a low-interest, long-term government loan to fund the improvements, but it cannot recoup the cost of the Clearwell replacement project at higher rates until these assets are put into service.
When it comes, Rabe expects the rate hike “to be significant”, at least in percentage terms.