The way Annapolis gets its drinking water will change in 2014 thanks to a 5-2 vote by City Council to approve up to $35 million for a new water treatment plant.
"I'm very happy that we are moving forward on this," Mayor Josh Cohen said. "The council originally approved up to $50 million ... This is a 30 percent overall savings."
Alderman Fred Paone (R-2nd Ward) and Alderman Richard Israel (D-1st Ward) voted against the bill amending the city's capital improvement program. The amendment gives city officials permission to issue bonds and take out loans to pay for the new plant.
The current plant, which was built in 1929, had long surpassed its life expectancy and maintaining the aging facility has become a burden.
"It's like owning a 1950s car," plant superintendent Jim FitzGerald said. "It just became more and more difficult to find parts, and the parts became more and more expensive."
Some of the parts were so rare that the city contracted manufacturers to custom build replacements, FitzGerald said.
The plant filters about 4 million gallons of water per day from the Magothy, Lower Patapsco and Upper Patapsco aquifers. In addition to treating water for Annapolis residents, the plant also filters water for the U.S. Naval Academy and St. John’s College.
CDM Smith Haskell, a Massachusetts-based consulting, engineering and construction firm, will build the new facility, which is set to break ground in the spring of 2013.
The new plant will be built next to the old plant on Defense Highway, and FitzGerald said the transition should cause minimal disruption to the water supply.
One day Annapolitans will receive water filtered through the old plant and the next day, the lines will be switched and residents will get water from the new plant.
The plant's funding will come from a $28.5 million low-cost state loan, a $1.5 million green-building grant and $5 million in city bonds.
Cohen said the city will likely issue those bonds on Wall Street in February.
The lower price tag for the project could also translate into slightly smaller water bills for city residents. Part of the rate increase passed in June 2012 anticipated repaying a debt of $50 million for the water treatment plant.
"We won't know that for a while. There are still a lot of details to work out," Cohen said. "I'd be surprised if there was any significant reduction."
Cohen noted that loan payments are not the only cost the city has as part of its water services.
Annapolis initially considered joining Anne Arundel County's water supply system, but Public Works Director David Jarrell said officials decided against it. Expanding the county facility was cheaper in the short-term, but the annual costs added up to slightly more money than the cost of building a new city plant.
"Unless you're saving a lot of money, it's not worth giving up your water," Jarrell said. "[The county] will also be able to give us water as a fail-safe this way."
The new plant may also mean a new method of filtering Annapolis' water supply, Jarrell said. The current process uses chemicals, but CDM Smith Haskell provided the city with a plan for bio-filtration—a process that uses bacteria to clean the water of iron and manganese.
"It has a much lower operational cost and is greener technology because these little bugs consume everything," Jarrell said.
The new plant will also have a new alert system that will call operators at nights and on weekends if there is a problem—meaning the plant will only need to be staffed during normal business hours. In contrast, the current plant requires monitoring around the clock.
The downside for Jarrell is that means he will have to let some people go.
"That's, as you can imagine, that's a very sensitive subject," Jarrell said. "The employees all know that we are going to need less operators, less mechanics than we do today. But we don't know what that exact number is going to be."
FitzGerald said he plans to stay on as superintendent until the "bugs" are worked out of the new plant. Then, he will likely retire.
He hopes the old plant could become a museum on the history of water filtration.
The plant already houses a number of artifacts, including a wooden water pipe excavated from a street off Church Circle that dates back to the Civil War and cupboards from the 1800s.
FitzGerald said the building itself is perfect for a museum with its arched windows, solid oak railings and brick walls. He thinks it has turn of the century charm that he'll miss when he makes the move to the new facility in 2014.
"It's eligible for the historic registry." FitzGerald said. "They just don't make buildings like this anymore."