EAU CLAIRE — Spending on water utility projects is poised to rise next year in Eau Claire, due in large part to efforts to remove PFAS contamination at the city’s wellfield.
In addition to perennial spending to keep Eau Claire’s waterworks running smoothly, the city’s proposed projects for 2023 includes measures to deal with “forever chemicals” first discovered last year in several municipal wells.
“In order to deal with that, we’re going to have to spend some money,” said Lane Berg, city utilities manager.
In a proposed plan for city projects for the next five years, there is $13.3 million in spending in 2023 alone for Eau Claire’s municipal water system. That’s more than double the $5.1 million in water projects the city funded this year.
Among the new projects is $4 million specified for PFAS response, but Berg said that number is lower than what will be needed to ensure those contaminants will stay out of Eau Claire’s drinking water.
“Whatever treatment system we go with will exceed that $4 million mark,” he said in an interview last week.
This year the city has been discussing drilling a new well in an area where PFAS were not found, but Berg said the strategy is now shifting toward a system to remove the chemicals from well water. As other communities have done, Eau Claire is considering installation of PFAS-removing vessels — tanks filled with granular activated carbon or resins used to filter out the contamination.
Whether such a system is needed to treat water only from PFAS-affected wells or if every drop heading to households must first go through it will impact the price tag.
Currently the city’s water has remained well under limits set by the state for safe drinking water, but federal regulators have hinted that stricter standards where PFAS would need to be virtually undetectable could be coming soon.
“If the EPA truly does go to a non-detect limit, it would mean a treatment system for all our water,” Berg said.
Gannett Fleming, an engineering firm the city has hired to help address its PFAS problems, estimated it would take a $45 million project to do that. The high price tag, Berg said, is because it wouldn’t be as simple as plugging in a PFAS-removing vessel to the very end of the treatment process. It has to be installed at a certain stage of the treatment process, which would require major changes to the water plant.
If the EPA’s final policy turns out to be not as strict, allowing minute levels of PFAS in drinking water, the city could pursue a less expensive option of treating water from wells with higher concentrations of PFAS before it reaches the treatment plant. Berg said Gannett Fleming is working on estimates on how much that would cost.
Communities such as Eau Claire will have a larger pool of state and federal money to draw from next year for help funding water projects.
The federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is providing $12.8 million annually for the next five years in new grant money to address emerging contaminants in drinking water systems in Wisconsin.
“It is a big influx,” said Mimi Johnson, director of emerging contaminants at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
The new funding joins existing programs such as a state revolving loan fund that issues low-interest loans to communities undertaking drinking water and clean water projects.
State Department of Natural Resources representatives have recently been visiting communities with PFAS issues to learn more about their efforts to address them and how state funding could help.
“We are working with communities who have already found PFAS in their water systems,” Johnson said.
DNR Secretary Preston Cole was among those who visited Eau Claire’s water treatment plant a week ago.
The state Department of Natural Resources has set a limit of PFAS in drinking water to 70 parts per trillion, which Eau Claire’s water has remained well below, according to test results. The state is recommending a stricter 20 parts per trillion limit, but that has not yet been adopted by the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board.
But federal regulators are advising levels of two widely used and studied kinds of PFAS at levels far below what the state has discussed.
On June 15, the Environmental Protection Agency announced interim health advisory levels with incredibly low, virtually undetectable amounts of two widely used and studied kinds of PFAS. That advisory recommends levels of PFOA — perfluorooctanoic acid — of no more than 0.004 parts per trillion and a limit of PFOS — perfluorooctane sulfonate — at under 0.02 parts per trillion.
Along with the recent advisory, the EPA announced it is developing a National Drinking Water Regulation to be published later this year for PFOA and PFOS. The federal agency anticipates finalizing those rules next year.
Berg is hoping to soon get a definitive indication from regulators of which standard will be adopted so the city can begin adding a PFAS-removing system next year.
“We need a sense of direction,” he said. “What they decide really determines where we need to go.”
Seven of the city’s 16 wells are currently not in use — either shut off or diverting their water to holding ponds — as they’ve tested positive for PFAS.
Known as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in the environment, PFAS are a group of human-made chemicals used in a variety of products since the 1950s. They are found in non-stick cookware, fast food wrappers, stain-resistant sprays and firefighting foam.
Scientists are still studying health effects of various PFAS on humans, the state Department of Health Services states on its website. Not all PFAS have the same health effects, but research suggests that high levels of certain chemicals may raise cholesterol levels, decrease how well bodies respond to vaccines, increase risk of thyroid disease, lower fertility in women, increase risk of conditions including high blood pressure in pregnant women, and result in slightly lower infant birth weights.
Other water spending
Aside from dealing with Eau Claire’s PFAS concerns, next year’s water spending in the city’s proposed 2023-27 Capital Improvement Plan has numerous recurring and one-time projects.
Replacing old water mains and laterals, reconditioning wells and continuing to eliminate lead pipes from the city’s water system are set to be funded again.
Every few years the city also sets aside money for expanding water service to newly added parts of Eau Claire. There’s $2.5 million planned for that in 2023, which is elevated from the $1 million usually allocated for growth. That increase is due in part to the city’s annexation last month of 438 acres of land, a portion of which is expected to become a large residential development.
A one-time item currently in next year’s plan is likely going to be pushed back to reduce the increase in water projects, according to Berg. Replacing the original lining of the Mount Washington Reservoir built in 1968 for $1.4 million is expected to be delayed until 2024, he said.