Ferndale's water softener works well in test runs

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJuly 1, 2013 

FERNDALE - Test runs of a planned water softener in Ferndale are going well, and the full-scale system should be online next year, city officials said.

The softener, which uses filters instead of the rock salt often used in home softeners, is estimated to cost $1.6 million to $2.1 million - an expense no one in the city anticipated after the conversion from river to well water in December 2011.

The city is able to pay for the softener without raising rates, due in part to revenue growth in the water fund, said city Finance Director Mark Peterson. The fund is projected to have a $425,000 surplus this year, according to the city budget available online.

Over the next five years, the city's water and sewer funds must absorb much larger construction costs, and a rate increase by 2018 appears unavoidable, Peterson said.

Officials at the water treatment plant are testing a small version of the proposed nanofiltration system, with filters coiled inside 12 tubes, 4 inches in diameter and 13 feet long. The full-scale softener will have 32 filter tubes, each one 8 inches across and 23 feet long.

Three months of testing began June 14. The results must receive approval from the state Department of Health before the full system is installed.

"It's worked perfectly so far - no glitches," said Andy Law of Wilson Engineering, the consultant the city hired to oversee the project.

If testing goes well, the council will be asked to approve a contract for the water softener this fall, and it will be running by 2014, city officials said.

The filters remove virtually all water hardness, which has varied from 150 to 170 parts per million of calcium since the city switched to well water. What comes out of the filters will be mixed with unsoftened well water to end up with the desired hardness of 70 ppm - the level found in the Nooksack River water used before the switch.

In addition to hardness, the filters reduce salts, organic matter and arsenic. The result is less disinfectant added to the water and a less distinctive mineral taste.

City water users have complained about taste and about mineral deposits soiling dishes or damaging appliances.

In addition to revenue growth in the water fund, a $1 million loan from the sewer fund will help cover the cost of the softener. The only water-rate increases expected over the next few years are regular cost-of-living increases, Peterson said. A 1.1 percent utility rate increase went into effect last week.

City officials are provisionally anticipating a $10 million expense in 2018 for a new sewer plant, Public Works Director Janice Marlega said. The cost could be higher.

Blaine replaced its sewer plant in 2010 at a cost of $30 million. That city has raised rates every year since about 2005, mostly to fund the new plant.

"It's a big deal," Peterson said of the cost of a new sewer plant. "That would be hard to absorb without a rate increase."

Reach RALPH SCHWARTZ at ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2298.

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