Inside the infrastructure: Officials mull Bemidji's future water needs

Water and Sewer Superintendent Todd Anderson shows the city’s water wells facility on Thursday along Gillett Drive Northwest. (Jillian Gandsey | Bemidji Pioneer)
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BEMIDJI -- Changing state requirements have opened the floodgates for discussion on updating Bemidji's water treatment infrastructure.

Conversations between the City Council and public works staff over several meetings the past year have explored the future of both the wastewater treatment plant on Midway Drive South and water wells west of the Bemidji Regional Airport.

Of the two, the water wells have been the more pressing matter.

About four years ago, perfluorocarbons, or PFCs, were discovered in the vicinity of the city's wells. The chemicals were formerly found in firefighting foams, and became prevalent in the area as a result of Fire Department training at the airport.

Since the discovery, the city has shut down three of its five wells, with the other two still providing safe water. Because of the stoppage with the other wells, though, the city began exploring the creation of a new well in another location.


However, Barr Engineering of Minneapolis was unable to find a suitable location for a new well.

"It turns out, we're not going to be drilling a new well," Public Works Director Craig Gray said. "We looked at three different spots and all three had issues. Barr is looking right now at near-term and long-term options. Those are what we're going to show to the council on July 29."

According to Gray, the alternative is constructing a new facility to process PFCs, close to the existing wells monitoring building on Gillett Drive Northwest. Earlier this month, the council authorized approaching the Legislature for financial assistance for a PFC treatment plant.

"It will likely be an addition to our current facility there. We will treat for iron and manganese first, then the PFCs, and then it will go through our current system we have now," Gray said. "Our hope is by having the plant, we'll be able to bring the shut down wells back online."

Gray said in fall, winter and spring months, the city uses about 1,600 gallons of water per minute, while the summer months can be up to 2,200.

"We're able to meet that now with two wells," Gray said. "So, when this happens, we'll have all kinds of wells we'll be able to use." At the July 29 meeting, Gray said Barr will provide the city with cost estimates and project options.

Across town, at the wastewater treatment plant, the city has applied for a new permit from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, which are good for four years.

"The current one expires at the end of 2019 and we're expecting the new permit in February," Gray said. "That will tell us on whether the MPCA says the city needs to start treating its wastewater for. Our biggest question mark is going to be ammonia and nitrogen. We're still testing that here."


Gray said if those are found in Bemidji, the city will have the permit cycle of 2020-2024 to update its equipment to treat for those, as it will be a requirement for the 2024-2028 permit.

According to a study by SEH Engineering of St. Paul, adding the needed treatment equipment could cost between $10 million and $12 million.

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