About a week after city staff first presented them with an outline of it, Grand Forks City Council members preliminarily agreed on a plan that would ratchet up residents’ wastewater bills to pay for new and better equipment at the city’s wastewater treatment plant.

Council members, acting as the Committee of the Whole, voted unanimously to adopt a 10-year plan that would spend about $45 million by 2027 to make the plant able to handle more – and more polluted – sewage. City administrators want to pay for at least part of that plan with a series of 3% utility fee increases that would make the average resident’s wastewater bill rise from about $34.49 each month to about $41.18.

Monday’s committee vote is the first of two needed for that to be official, and council members are set to decide definitively on Monday, May 17. Assuming they approve the plant plan, city staff would then submit it to the North Dakota Department of Environmental Quality and, later this summer, ask for council members to include it in the city's 2022 budget before getting the ball rolling on preliminary design work in the fall.

“When we discuss something like the BMX bike track, that’s really fun stuff to talk about,” council member Bret Weber said. “This is maybe not as much fun, but my, my, this is so important to the economic health, basic public health, and basic functioning of our city.”

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The sheer amount of sewage the plant cleans each day is expected to increase from 9.8 million gallons on an average day to a predicted 11.3 million gallons by 2040, and city consultants have built into the facility plan another 2.5 million gallons per day that could be taken up by future industry and more residents.

But the “strength” of the sewage the plant handles is of greater concern to city administrators. Industrial companies, Red River Biorefinery foremost among them, have pushed the city’s water treatment plant to somewhere between 86% and 99% of its ability to remove pollutants from sewage before discharging it into the Red River.

City Administrator Todd Feland said Monday that Grand Forks can’t add another industry at the moment. He and other city leaders have talked about the proposal as a sort-of economic development tool because it would help the city sell itself to yet more industrial firms.

Wary of a similar concert

In related news, council members:

  • Preliminarily, and warily, approved a permit for the Brick & Barley bar in downtown Grand Forks to host a concert by the Johnny Holm Band on July 22 in Town Square. The band performed July 23, 2020, in Town Square, when “active” COVID-19 cases were once again rising and civic and higher education officials worried about a spike in new cases as UND students returned to campus later that summer. Debbie Swanson, Grand Forks Public Health’s director, said she saw no attendees socially distancing or wearing a preventative mask at last year’s concert. Sarah Horak, one of the bar’s owners, said staff set up hand sanitizing stations there and offered free masks to concert-goers, but neither was required for entry. On Monday, City Council member Katie Dachtler suggested making this year’s concert contingent on the Grand Forks area’s COVID-19 metrics, but council member Kyle Kvamme said he didn’t like the idea of holding the event “hostage” to vaccination rates that its organizers couldn’t control. The city is working to make vaccines available more casually as the number of Grand Forks County residents who are old enough and motivated enough to get their shots dwindles, but Feland said the city doesn’t currently plan to have a “pop up” vaccine clinic at the Johnny Holm Band concert.

  • Preliminarily amended the city’s Community Development Block Grant plan because three of the projects that were set to receive money from the program have had to put those plans on hold during the pandemic. That means $155,000 apportioned in 2019 to add a classroom at the Ruth Meiers Center on South 17th Street is set to instead pay for three multi-family and group homes to be rehabbed. The change will also point $91,000 from the HomeCents revolving loan fund to Red River Valley Community Action for work at the program’s new office on Gateway Drive, and cancel the Ernie Normal Shelter project because the shelter was closed during the pandemic.

  • Preliminarily approved a beer and wine license for Archives Coffee House at 3012 University Avenue, plus a second beer and wine license for The Other Half Coffee & Taphouse at 4571 South Washington Street.