The people of Pierre, S.D., voted for an increase on their water bill.
The increase of nearly 40% was a stipulation of a project to build a new water treatment facility — to be uniquely situated in a municipal riverside park — for the city of about 14,000.
“We knew the community was interested in pursuing this opportunity, and it was really interesting to see the numbers come in and have 73% of people say, ‘Yes, we want different water and we’re willing to pay for it.’ That’s huge,” said Brooke Bohnenkamp, city of Pierre communications manager.
The idea came about in 2015 after a community survey indicated the need for better water in the city. The city has run its water from 13 wells using underground aquifers since it was founded.
“Even though it’s good drinking water, it’s not the best quality because it has a high iron and manganese content,” said Brad Palmer, city of Pierre utilities director.
After the survey was complete, a water study was performed that reiterated the need so the city hit the pavement in an effort to not only figure out how to fund the project but to ensure community support.
“I think we have a very accessible commission,” Bohnenkamp said. “We’re a relatively small community. Our mayor is a hometown boy; with the exception of college, he’s been here his whole life and he knows a lot of people in the community and he’s very approachable. If you call city hall, it’s likely you can talk to the mayor directly if that’s what you want to do. I think that the fact that we have that kind of relationship with the community is really beneficial in situations like this.”
The city held three public meetings explaining its ideas and laying out the facts before putting it to a vote for its roughly 14,000 residents.
“Before we started this project, we did lots of public outreach explaining what this would look like and what it would cost, and we were very upfront from the beginning when we started discussing this opportunity that there would absolutely be a cost to everybody who is on our utilities,” Bohnenkamp said.
Still, the city wanted to increase as little as possible, so it brought its proposal to the Central Plains Water Development District for funding. The commission agreed to put $100,000 toward engineering and inspection fees.
In 2018, Pierre began a complex undertaking to design a nature-themed water treatment facility that would match the aesthetic of the Steamboat Park, which is located on the bank of the Missouri River.
It chose to use a construction manager at risk agreement, contracting PKG Contracting Inc. alongside Scull Construction Services for an estimated cost of roughly $33 million.
Construction began in August 2020 for the building, which will be mostly underground thanks to use of ultrafiltration technology.
“With ultrafiltration, you’re basically running the water through these filters so you don’t need the big tanks where the water flows through sand and the sand removes the impurities,” said Palmer. “With that, you’re able to have a much smaller building, and with a smaller building, you’re having less cost in construction so you can take that money and put it into other things like taking our small building and making it look good.”
Because the facility will pull water directly from the Missouri River, it has to be built near the river, and in Pierre, the areas along the river are mostly all parkland.
“It’s not going to be your typical concrete construction building,” Palmer explained. “It’s got park-friendly colors, earth tones, a rock facade, low profile — we’re hoping they’re going to look at it and say, ‘Wow, that is not what we expected.’”
This is important because a main concern for citizens was the location in the park, and the city didn’t want to create an eye sore either.
“It doesn’t look like an industrial building and you shouldn’t at all visualize what you’d normally see when you see a wastewater treatment plant or something where you see a bunch of open water in containers,” Bohnenkamp said. “This is a self-contained facility that isn’t actually that big above ground.”
Using the Missouri River, too, creates its own host of complications. Workers will have to bore underground into the river and float a 24-inch pipe out, sink it and pull it back through the bored hole to hook it to the intake structure of the facility. In February, divers and boats took to the water to begin that portion of the project.
Palmer said even though they don’t expect to be finished until 2022, the project is ahead of schedule and over 20% has been completed.
The city of Pierre pumps and treats up to 5.5 million gallons of water each day and the new facility will allow for a maximum capacity of 8.8 million gallons per day for the next 40 years.
“I think the younger generation wants better water, and they’re willing to pay for it,” Palmer said. “They’re just ready for better water.”
The rate increase will amount to about $1 per day for the average residential customer. The city has also prepared for its well technicians, who test the water from the 13 drinking wells, to be retrained as plant operators. Palmer said city officials are not expecting any layoffs due to the improved technology.
In addition to the new water treatment facility, the state is also constructing a new bridge across the Missouri River. The new bridge will have a plaza under it along the banks in Pierre. The city is adding public restrooms, a walking path, vegetation and possibly even a splash pad to benefit the park itself.