Significant upgrades are being proposed for the Cedar Rapids Water Pollution Control Facility (WPCF) near Bertram, the state’s largest water treatment plant by volume and a vital facility for some of the area’s largest industrial companies. Now, city officials say, comes the difficult part – how to pay for those upgrades. At its Dec. 7 […]
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Significant upgrades are being proposed for the Cedar Rapids Water Pollution Control Facility (WPCF) near Bertram, the state’s largest water treatment plant by volume and a vital facility for some of the area’s largest industrial companies.
Now, city officials say, comes the difficult part – how to pay for those upgrades.
At its Dec. 7 meeting, the Cedar Rapids City Council unanimously approved a request from utilities director Roy Hesemann to apply for a low-interest loan from the federal Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA), a program administered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that can fund up to 49% of the cost of water infrastructure improvement projects. The city received approval in October 2020 to apply for WIFIA funds.
In Cedar Rapids’ case, the city plans to pursue an estimated $125 million from WIFIA for a $250 million project to update major portions of the plant, including solids handling systems, secondary treatment and removal systems, and improved recovery systems for biogas and nutrients generated from wastewater treatment.
There is a “condition” that may prevent the city from applying for WIFIA funding, Mr. Hesemann acknowledged. A decision on that potential obstacle would be made before the city applied for WIFIA funds and paid the required $100,000 application fee. The city faces a January 2022 application deadline, he said.
Other possible funding sources include State Revolving Fund (SRF) loans from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, revenue bonds and potential grants, Mr. Hesemann said.
Mr. Hesemann told the council that the current facility, constructed in the late 1970s and brought online in 1980, utilized state-of-the-art technology, but that technology is now outdated and no longer supported by vendors. After the flood of 2008 that knocked the treatment plant offline for 12 days, $85 million was spent on post-flood repairs, and another $20 million was invested in a flood control project to provide future protection.
“These investments helped to extend the useful life of the facility,” Mr. Hesemann told the council. “But now’s the time to make generational upgrades.”
Plans for the latest upgrades began in 2015 and would pick up where the city’s post-flood repairs left off, Mr. Hesemann said. Among the goals, he noted, is for the WPCF to become an energy recovery center, capturing biogases for use as fuel; implementing nutrient reduction strategies to meet state standards; and making updates proactively, rather than waiting for state regulators to discover issues and reactively demand solutions.
Several assumptions are being made in the updated plan, said Mr. Hesemann. Primary among them: That the plant’s eight largest wastewater treatment customers – large industrial operations with high wastewater outputs – remain in business in Cedar Rapids and aren’t deterred by potential rate increases brought about by the project’s cost.
He said the intent is to spread the cost of the $250 million project up to 40 years to diffuse the impact. He admitted it’s difficult to predict if all eight of the WPCF’s largest industrial customers will remain in Cedar Rapids but said individual meetings had been held with representatives of all eight industries to gauge their support for the project and their tolerance for higher rates.
“While none expressed excitement over higher rates for the next several years, all recognize the importance (of the) mutual connection (and) invaluable service WPCF offers them and the community,” Mr. Hesemann said. “We continue to meet with them in order to hear their concerns, solicit their input, and identify the impacts these changes will have on their bottom line.”
Future upgrades are also being proposed for other portions of the treatment facility, Mr. Hesemann said. Those future projects could cost upwards of $400 million, but facility officials aren’t yet ready to plan those upgrades, he noted.
City council members were strongly supportive of efforts to update the WPCF.
“We’re planning for the future. We’re not waiting for a crisis,” council member Scott Olson said.
“We know what we have to get done. We hear so many stories across the country where they waited too long, and then the system failed, and then it really gets expensive and becomes a big issue for local industry or the residents by not having adequate services. Also, I think it’s worth applying even though we may not go into the (WIFIA) program. I think it’s worth the risk to have it there as a backup in case we decide we want to use that program versus the other methods of funding.”
Council member Scott Overland concurred, stressing the need for WPCF updates as vital for the city’s future.
“I consider the WPCF to be the most important asset the city has,” he said, “Not only for things that the citizens don’t need to worry about when they send water down the drain, but really the economic development that has created the criticality of this asset now and in the future. With grain processing and the various other big users that we have, in the long run, that growth is solely dependent on the ability to process their water needs. So I’m very supportive of continued forward-looking improvements to this facility.”
Design work for the $250 million upgrade is already underway, Mr. Hesemann said, and if the funding pieces fall into place, officials project construction of that upgrade would be completed by 2026. Future phases could be completed by 2033.