Grand Forks city leaders plan to increase wastewater bills several times this decade to pay for a $45 million series of reportedly crucial upgrades at the city’s wastewater treatment plant.

Those increases, currently set to be 3% each year, would raise the average residential wastewater bill from $34.49 each month in 2021 to $41.18 in 2027, which is approximately when city administrators expect they won’t need to increase wastewater rates any further to repay the loan Grand Forks would take out to renovate the plant. A unanimous Grand Forks City Council vote on Monday, May 17, put the plan into motion despite a bit of earlier skepticism from a few city officials – council member Bret Weber earlier this month worried about putting undue financial burden on residents, for instance – and some Herald readers.

“I don’t agree with it as a taxpayer,” Rachel Chisholm, who’s lived in Grand Forks for about seven years, said Thursday.

“We already pay more for wastewater and water than my mom does down in St. Paul,” Kim Szondy wrote to the paper earlier this month.

But, all things being equal, the planned rate hikes might not set the city apart from its peers. Grand Forks wastewater rates are the eighth cheapest among 13 cities spread across North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota, according to a Herald analysis of 2020 utility rate data collected by consulting firm AE2S and interviews with public works staff at a handful of those cities.

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Comparisons

When they come up with a salary plan for city employees, Grand Forks administrators refer to the pay and benefits offered by city governments at other upper Midwestern cities that have similarly large populations, a major medical center, a university and “full service” police, fire and other departments. Those cities, in ascending order of 2020 residential wastewater fees, as reported by the consulting firm, are: West Fargo; Fargo; Blaine, Minn.; Bismarck; St. Cloud, Minn.; Burnsville, Minn.; Minot, Rapid City, S.D.; Moorhead, Minn.; Sioux Falls, S.D.; Rochester, Minn., and Duluth, Minn. Grand Forks sits between Minot and Rapid City on that list.

The most expensive was Duluth, which charged a residential property $52.77 per month that year, assuming they created 6,000 gallons of sewage. West Fargo, the cheapest, charged $9 for the same number of gallons. Grand Forks charged $33.79.

But that list isn’t a perfect measure of the city’s relative wastewater fees because Minot and West Fargo rely on lagoons to clean their sewage – Grand Forks does not – and Burnsville and Blaine are part of a consolidated system in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area that’s run by the Metropolitan Council, a regional planning and policy organization.

Among 80 locales with a fundamentally similar treatment system, Grand Forks has the 25th cheapest wastewater rates, according to AE2S data. But that metric has its own caveats: it only encompasses cities that responded to the company’s survey and it doesn’t control for population, which can be a crucial factor in wastewater charges because smaller cities, where work on a treatment system can still measure in the millions, don’t have as many residents upon whom they can spread utility fees.

The plan

Some of the $45 million slate of changes Grand Forks administrators plan to make to the city’s wastewater plant are relatively small, such as better piping or a new backup generator, and most wouldn't be readily apparent to a passerby.

"Most all the work is taking place inside of tanks and underground," Tod Matelski, the plant's supervisor, told the Herald.

The largest, and most noticeable, change would be to the system of four bioreactors city workers use to clean the 9.8 million gallons of water the plant processes and pumps into the Red River on an average day. At present, those reactors are linked in a series, which means that sewage is cleaned incrementally as it passes through the first, then the second and so on. The upgrade plan would add more cleaning systems to each reactor and connect them in parallel, making each work more or less independently of its counterparts. Both changes aim to make the city’s system more efficient as a whole and keep Grand Forks ahead of anticipated state regulations that, they expect, will require the city to remove more nitrogen and phosphorus from the water it puts back into the river.

The plan is split into two parts: a $13.7 million initial phase, set to finish by 2024, that would redo the piping and other infrastructure at the plant and a $31.3 million second phase, set to finish by 2027, that would upgrade the reactors. City staff have also proposed two further phases, totaling another $31.4 million by 2031, that would add a dewatering plant and air-drying facility for “biosolids” that have accumulated in the plant’s backup lagoons over the years and further upgrade the bioreactors. Those latter phases, however, aren’t considered as critical as the first ones and city staff wouldn’t follow through with them unless the need arose – if, say, more industrial companies set up or expanded in town, then it might prompt the additional work on the reactors.

Those first two phases are partly designed to help the city accommodate more agribusiness companies like JR Simplot and Red River Biorefinery because the city’s current system is reaching the upper limits of its ability to clean the particularly “strong” wastewater those types of companies discharge into the municipal system. The upgraded system would also assume modest increases in population, not just industry, over the next decade.

A May 20, 2021, photo of the Grand Forks Wastewater Treatment plant. (Korrie Wenzel/Grand Forks Herald)
A May 20, 2021, photo of the Grand Forks Wastewater Treatment plant. (Korrie Wenzel/Grand Forks Herald)

The payment

Grand Forks took out four loans, totaling $38.3 million, from what's now known as the North Dakota Department of Environmental Quality in the late 1990s and early 2000s. That money paid for the sewage plant's planning, design and construction before it opened in 2001. Part of the city's wastewater fees generate the money needed for the repayment on those loans.

The city paid off – "retired" in city hall parlance – the first of those loans in 2018, and expects to pay off the second and third in September of this year. Those three loans total $34 million, according to city staff. The city is set to pay off the fourth and final loan, worth $4.3 million, in 2025.

The proposed 3% rate increases would, in effect, cover the difference between the repayments on the old, smaller loans and the new ones that the city would take out to pay for the new slate of upgrades.

The city could allocate sales tax revenue to the project, City Administrator Todd Feland said, but that money already goes toward transportation, economic development projects and other civic priorities.

The city could also use some of the $11.5 million it expects to receive directly from the Biden administration's COVID-19 stimulus package, which cities can use for infrastructure, broadly, and wastewater projects in particular. And North Dakota's state government also received money for the same purpose that could ultimately help pay for the project. If the city points some of that money toward the wastewater upgrades, Feland said, it would presumably lower either the size of the city's proposed rate increases or the number of them that would compound over the next few years.