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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Council hears more on city’s water woes

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 10/27/21

TOWER— The city council here, absent council member Kevin Norby, discussed a familiar list of issues Monday night, without taking much action. The condition of the city’s drinking water …

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Council hears more on city’s water woes

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TOWER— The city council here, absent council member Kevin Norby, discussed a familiar list of issues Monday night, without taking much action.
The condition of the city’s drinking water was back on the council agenda after the latest round of testing by the Department of Health showed that the drinking water supply is, again, in violation of the standards for trihalomethanes. The latest sampling, conducted in late September, showed the total trihalomethane concentration at just over 105 micrograms per liter. That exceeds the drinking water standard of 80.4 micrograms per liter.
According to Acting Mayor Dave Setterberg, the latest findings are likely the result of the increased use of chlorine by the Tower-Breitung Wastewater Board, which manages the drinking water supply for Tower and Soudan. This year’s drought has dropped the water level in the communities’ wells, and that means the pumps are pulling water from deeper depths. That has not only tinted the water a yellowish color, but raised concerns about possible contaminants, prompting the increased use of chlorine to disinfect the water.
Organic matter in the water, combined with higher levels of chlorine, is known to generate unhealthy byproducts, including haloacetic acids and trihalomethanes. While the haloacetic acid concentrations remain well below the maximum limits, that hasn’t been the case with trihalomethanes this year.
Wastewater operator Matt Tuchel told the council that the problem began after a 2012 wellhead protection study showed a hydrological connection between the drinking water wells and the East Two River. The city’s current drinking water treatment plant is not designed to treat surface water, which typically has higher levels of organic contaminants than well water. A high beaver population in the area, whose dams had raised the river level near the wells, increased concerns about surface contamination of the wells, which required that the TBWWB add additional disinfectant. It’s that disinfectant that appears to have raised the level of the haloacetic acid and trihalomethanes.
Tuchel said the TBWWB experienced its first violations of those contaminants in 2014 and 2015, and that continuing efforts to remove beaver from the vicinity of the wells had brought the water back within safe limits.
But, a recent influx of new beavers had backed the river water up again, creating the conditions for a new round of violations. “Due to the drought and the river being backed up by the beavers, I expected we’d fail to meet the standard,” said Tuchel. He said three of the four beaver dams in the area have now been removed, but that a large one, that’s difficult to access, is still in place. He said he’s trying to find a blaster who can come and take care of it.
Given the latest violation, Tuchel said he’s now required to undertake quarterly testing for the two contaminants until the violations cease.
There is hope on the horizon for a more permanent solution to the problem, noted Tuchel. The new $4.5 million drinking water treatment facility, which TBWWB officials hope to construct next year, is designed to remove organics and reduce the production of the decontaminant by-products currently causing the exceedances. Those organics include the tannins that are also staining the water that unpleasing shade of yellow. The TBWWB currently has $3.375 million in secured funding for the water plant.
In other business, the council heard a lengthy financial presentation, one of the most detailed in years, from outgoing clerk-treasurer Victoria Ranua. The report suggests that the city’s financial hole from two years ago has improved significantly, although Ranua urged the council to rebuild reserves in some accounts in order to have resources to invest in further improvements to things like city streets.
Ranua reported a current balance of $202,908 in the city’s general checking account, $175,132 in the Hoodoo Point checking account, $58,057 in the TEDA checking, and $16,938 in the ambulance service checking. The ambulance vehicle savings account has a current balance of $72,600, while various other city savings accounts have a combined balance of $48,255.
The city began 2021 with a total debt load of $3.288 million, which should be reduced to $3.133 million by the end of the year. More than half of that debt is from a non-recourse loan from the Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation, for the TEDA-owned Lamppa Manufacturing building, which totaled $1.777 million as of the beginning of 2021. The loan, which is managed by TEDA, includes no interest and is payable only from net proceeds from rental payments for the facility, which means city taxpayers will never be liable for the debt.
The largest remaining debt, which taxpayers could be liable for at some point, is the $466,000 in remaining debt for the sewer extension to Hoodoo Point Campground in 2018. Ranua noted that the council should be sure in the future to take on such debt only after undertaking due diligence. “They never saw a report from an engineer saying that the existing [septic] system was failing,” said Ranua. At the same time, she said that connecting the old and leaking piping at the campground to the municipal treatment system allowed a considerable amount of ground and surface water infiltration, consuming much of the system’s remaining capacity.
Other debts include $240,000 in remaining TIF obligations stemming from the construction of the senior assisted living facility back in 2005, $253,000 in a temporary utility bond, paid for by the TBWWB, $200,000 from a League of Minnesota Cities loan in 2019, $214,000 owed to Gundersen Trust for harbor work, and $137,646 in remaining debt on the renovations at the charter school. The charter school debt will be down to $93,679 later this month, when TEDA makes its final debt payment for the year.
Ranua noted that the city’s debt, at least on paper, will jump significantly next year as a result of construction of the new drinking water plant. While the plant will be owned and paid for by the TBWWB, Ranua noted that the debt will appear on city books.
In other business, the council:
• Heard a report on the 2020 federal census from the state demographer’s office. The city saw a decline in its total population from 500 in 2010 to 430 as of 2020. According to the data, the city has 297 total housing units, with only 218 occupied, for a total of 79 vacant units.
The high vacancy rate raised concerns among some on the council, particularly given what appears to be a high interest in housing in the community.
• Heard from Setterberg that the city has gotten “a couple” responses to the advertisement for the council vacancy. The council is set to make a decision on filling the vacancy at their Nov. 8 meeting.
• Gave the second reading to an updated version of Ordinance 2, which governs sewer hookups.
• Heard a report from council member Joe Morin about options for grading. He noted that the repair cost of the city’s current grader would be in the $25,000-$30,000 range, while leasing a grader from Zeigler would run around $10,000 a month. “We’d have to rebuild the engine or go out on the market and see what might be available used,” said Morin. “It’s not looking real easy peasy.”
Council member Sheldon Majerle questioned whether the city needed a grader, but Morin said it’s needed to cut down snowbanks when the city gets a lot of snow. Majerle said in cases of emergency, the city could use equipment at the airport for that kind of work. Morin said he would talk to public works supervisor Ben Velcheff about that possibility.
• Approved a special meeting with the Gundersen Trust board, at a date to be determined. The council is hoping to hear options for the trust to improve its financial returns.

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