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Willmar, MN pushing toward softer water, better quality


July, 2017
G. Wilkins
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Map showing Willmar, Minnesota

Attribution: Arkyan via Wikipedia Commons

Domestic hard water treatment installation

Domestic hard water treatment installation

Attribution: William Herron via flickr

Willmar, Minn. is being proactive about their water goals.

Sitting in the southern half of the state, Willmar still has several years to comply with regulations from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency regarding the salt in discharged water. Even so, the city is not dragging its feet, having already begun researching and taking measures to clean up its act. After all, salt, sulfates, chlorides, and dissolved minerals can harm water quality, vegetation, and wildlife.

In Willmar, wastewater is treated by two different entities. The city itself handles the main wastewater treatment, but Willmar’s electric and utility company Willmar Municipal Utility treats drinking water before it reaches homes and businesses. The two are working together to address the contents of their treated water.

The main cause of the water’s salinity is home-based water softeners. Most of Willmar’s drinking water supply comes from wells, and those wells yield harder water (water with higher mineral content) than most people like. Water softening systems often use salt to neutralize those minerals, and much of the softened water heads back to the city and to Willmar Municipal Utility for treatment. The food processing and animal rendering industries also have a hand in the water’s salinity.

This can be solved in part by educating the public. While the water’s salinity is measured at the wastewater treatment facilities, treating the problem there is too expensive. New water softening systems are more expensive up front, but use less salt. Tn the long run this method will cost users less to operate and help solve the city’s problem. Willmar Public Works director Sean Christensen knows that if the city wants its residents to switch to new high-efficiency water softening systems, officials will have to get involved in showing them why doing so is important.

“Education and outreach is going to be a big item.”

Something else can also address this problem: upgrading the city water treatment facilities. There are two total, and at the moment 65% of the city’s drinking water is treated at the southwest plant while the remaining 35% goes to the northeast one.

Upgrades to the northeast facility are already under consideration.

In 2012, Willmar Municipal Utilities began designing upgrades to better remove ammonia from the water, at the cost of $4.2 million. Other upgrades are also necessary and if completed, Willmar could flip the workload between the two facilities, giving the lion’s share of the work to the northeast facility–where the water is naturally softer. Cutting back on the natural hardness of the water means residents use less water softeners, leading to less overall difficulty.

The upgrades to the northeast facility have yet to be approved by the Municipal Utilities Commission, but Willmar Municipal Utilities hopes to begin construction in 2019.

Other upgrades are in the works, but the doubled added price has Willmar focusing on getting the base upgrades done before adding more. If the basics aren’t enough, the city could soften the water before it gets to consumers, but building the needed softening plants at each treatment facility would cost more than $2 million each, plus another $2 million annually (before labor) to operate.

Willmar is giving its all to complying with the MPCA’s regulation. Working together with the public, it hopes to improve the quality of its water supply in the best interests of those who consume it, and with the help of those people it can do so in the most cost-effective way.

  1. Header Photo Attribution: U.S. Marine Corps Lance Spl. Maritza Vela
  2. http://www.wctrib.com/news/local/4298454-willmar-water-needs-cut-back-salt-city-municipal-utilities-plan-improvements


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