FERNDALE - Hard well water, a problem that has vexed Ferndale leaders and residents for more than a year, appears to have a workable solution.
The city's finance director said the city can afford the $2 million cost of a water-softening system without raising taxes or water rates.
"I think I heard a big sigh of relief up here with your report," council member Jon Mutchler said on Monday, March 4, to Finance Director Mark Peterson and consultant Andy Law of Wilson Engineering. They reported to council on a preferred water softener and a way to fund it.
City officials hope to have the softener in place within a year.
Council members voted 6-1 Monday to submit a required report to the state Health Department detailing the city's plans for a nanofiltration system designed to reduce the hardness of the city's well water by more than half. Lloyd Zimmerman voted no.
Nanofiltration was the more expensive of two options Law presented. The system will cost $1.7 million to $2.2 million to build, plus $65,000 to $85,000 a year to operate and maintain, according to early estimates.
City staff recommended nanofiltration over an ion-exchange system that uses acid instead of the salt that is familiar to users of home water softeners. An ion exchange system, which removes calcium and magnesium from the water, would have cost $1 million to $1.2 million to build, and $50,000 to $70,000 annually to maintain.
The engineer's presentation explained the recommendation, saying nanofiltration "provides a good softening system, the best overall treatment, the best improvement in taste and can better address potential future compliance issues" by removing arsenic.
Nanofiltration removes anything that's dissolved in the water, including organic materials that otherwise would require more chlorine treatment, Law said.
The ion exchange system would require treatment plant staff to handle large amounts of strong acid, Public Works Director Janice Marlega said.
Peterson said the nanofiltration system can be added without raising water rates beyond the usual cost-of-living increase. Of the $2 million in upfront costs, $1 million would come from the water fund's cash reserves, and the other $1 million would be borrowed from the sewer fund, to be repaid by 2015.
The water fund will be able to repay the sewer fund through new connection fees and a 2.5 percent growth rate in the number of water customers, which the city saw in 2012, Peterson said.
Mutchler said in an interview that the payment plan was not too speculative about the city's growth rate.
"We're still taking a conservative viewpoint about those housing starts," Mutchler said. "We're just looking at ... the trends."
The Health Department will require a pilot study of the system for up to 10 months before it can go fully online. The study in this case should be shorter.
"I don't think they're too hard on people just putting in softening because that's not a health risk," Law said.