Austin looking at possible water treatment upgrades

Published 7:01 pm Sunday, October 23, 2016

With stricter Minnesota Pollution Control Agency wastewater standards on the horizon, Austin officials know they could be facing some costly upgrades at the Austin Wastewater Treatment Facility.

“Anytime you touch anything out here, you’re talking multiple millions,” Austin City Administrator Craig Clark said at the site.

On Friday, Barr Engineering Co. Senior Engineer Jeff Ubl and Bolton & Menk Principal Environmental Engineer Paul Saffert toured the Austin Wastewater Treatment Facility as part of a cost analysis of 15 cities. Later this year, they’ll finish a report, and next year they’ll testify about their findings before the Minnesota Legislature.

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Wastewater treatment issues have long been a concern for the city. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency enacted stricter water standards in 2014, which would hold cities responsible for managing their phosphate levels, among other things.

Those changes have the potential to cost $20 million in upgrades to Austin’s Wastewater Treatment Facility.

But city of Austin leaders hope Friday’s tour and the data collected in Austin and at 14 other communities will prove beneficial as Austin pushes ahead toward meeting the standards.

Barr Senior Engineer Jeff Ubl takes a picture on Friday during a tour at the Austin Wastewater Treatment Facility. Jason Schoonover/

Barr Senior Engineer Jeff Ubl takes a picture on Friday during a tour at the Austin Wastewater Treatment Facility. Jason Schoonover/

In the 2015 legislative session, funding was set aside to study the cost associated with meeting future water quality standards for total suspended solids, phosphorus, nitrogen, chloride and sulfate.

One goal is to gauge future stream standards and see how that affects wastewater facilities and their output.

As part of that cost analysis, engineers visited communities with various sizes, ages and types of wastewater facilities. Austin is one of the largest facilities toured due to community size and industrial needs with infrastructure like Hormel Foods Corp.’s flagship plant.

Ubl called Austin one of the oldest facilities as it was built in 1939 and updated since.

“This is an interesting plant,” he said.

While Saffert called the plant cutting edge in 1939, he said its key to know if it will still be operational moving forward.

“Our job is to figure out if this technology will continue to be functional,” Saffert said.

Ubl said Austin’s done a nice job of keeping the technology operating and updated.

While tanks can last many years and can be reused, Ubl noted mechanical equipment with moving parts has a shorter life and needs more frequent replacement and maintenance.

Saffert noted another part to consider is picking equipment that meets the end-of-pipe goals.

Since the MPCA announced changes to standards for output at wastewater treatment facilities, the city has been concerned about the costs for the city and to residents and businesses.

“To have this focused attention put on our plant and the cost implications is very much appreciated,” City Administrator Craig Clark said.

As a GreenStep City, Clark noted the community wants to protect the environment, but financial realities are significant, especially when accounting for the community’s poverty rate.

Clark said it will be beneficial to have some specific information for the needs at the Austin facility, and he’s hoping the Legislature will recognize the burden the changes could place on communities.

Since the costs are coming through state regulations for state waters, Clark is hoping the state will partner to address those costs.

The Austin Wastewater Treatment Facility has an estimated replacement value of $75-$100 million, according to City Engineer/Public Works Director Steven Lang.

Saffert added those estimates only address replacing current infrastructure and not upgrades.

In the last 20 years, Lang noted $38 million has been put into maintenance and upkeep at the facility.

“It’s hard to meet the new standard with old equipment,” Clark said.