City Council to consider nearly $4 million for drinking water projects

ELLSWORTH — The City Council will vote at a special meeting on Friday morning whether to authorize up to $3.8 million in bonds to pay for improvements to the city’s drinking water infrastructure.

The meeting will take place at 8 a.m. in the Council Chambers at City Hall.

Most of that money — up to $3 million — would be to repay money the city is on tap to receive from Maine’s Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, a low-interest loan program that is part of the Department of Health and Human Services.

The money breaks down into three components:

  • $1,325,000 for water and sewer line improvements on State Street. The city intends to do that work this summer, while the Maine Department of Transportation (MDOT) is rebuilding State Street between the Mill Mall and the bridge over the Union River at Ellsworth Falls.
  • $1,795,000 for the construction and installation of “backwash lagoons and a spray irrigation system” at the city’s water treatment plant near Branch Lake.
  • $685,000 for upgrades to the city’s water storage tanks on State Street and High Street.

The collective total for those components is $3,805,000. Beyond the $3-million loan from the state, an additional $766,000 would need to be bonded outside of the loan program. Another $39,000 would be needed to cover legal and financial fees and any overages due to changes in the projects.

Councilors will vote on each of the components separately. The cost of the projects would eventually be footed by the city’s drinking water customers, but what effect that would have on their bills depends on interest rates and the total cost of the projects.

That, in turn, depends on which (if any) of the projects the council votes to move forward with.

City Manager David Cole said the improvements on State Street represent the most pressing need. MDOT’s planned work on that road gives the city a chance to replace an old section of water main at a lower cost by doing the work while the road is already dug up.

Plans call for replacing 2,800 feet of water main on State Street and an additional 925 feet of water main on North Street, along with additional improvements. City officials said the water main in that area is a 10-inch 1889 cast-iron, lead-joint main that will be replaced with a modern 12-inch water main.

“It’s time to upgrade,” Cole said.

Lead-joint refers to the way the pipes were joined together. Oakum — natural fibers mixed with tar — were packed around the end of a pipe where it fits into another one, and the joint was then sealed with molten lead. It was a common method of joining pipes.

The mention of lead may bring to mind the news out of Flint, Mich., in recent months, but city officials said that is a different situation and lead is not a problem in Ellsworth water.

Larry Wilson, superintendent of the city’s drinking water department, said the city recently finished testing for lead and copper and only one house was found to have an issue with lead. That issue, he said, was found to be caused by a faucet that had recently been replaced inside the home.

“We’re in compliance,” Cole said. “Our water’s fine.”

Cole said the city is “lucky” to have a “great water source” in Branch Lake. He noted the city has taken steps to manage and preserve the lake and its watershed to maintain its water quality.

On upgrades to the water storage tanks, Wilson said it is to make sure the water inside the tanks is being well mixed so that users can “have nice, fresh water all the time.”

The backwash lagoons and spray irrigation system at the city’s water treatment plant would be put in place to avoid the unpermitted discharge of backwash water from the plant back into Branch Lake.

Deputy City Manager and Finance Director Tammy Mote said the city would likely look to repay the borrowed money over 20 years. She noted, as did state officials in letters to the city, that the interest rate for the borrowed money would be low.


Steve Fuller

Steve Fuller

Reporter at The Ellsworth American,
Steve Fuller worked at The Ellsworth American from 2012 to early 2018. He covered the city of Ellsworth, including the Ellsworth School Department and the city police beat, as well as the towns of Amherst, Aurora, Eastbrook, Great Pond, Mariaville, Osborn, Otis and Waltham. A native of Waldo County, he served as editor of Belfast's Republican Journal prior to joining the American. He lives in Orland.
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