Illinois American Water plans upgrades

Illinois American Water plans upgrades

CHAMPAIGN – Illinois American Water Co. announced today it will build a new water treatment plant in west Champaign, part of $40 million in capital improvements planned over the next five years.

The move comes as the cities of Champaign and Urbana continue to investigate a possible purchase of, or negotiations with, the water company following customer complaints about boil orders and low water pressure.

A company official said the improvements have been in the works since 1996 and are a response to growth in Illinois American's customer base and overall water usage.

"The only reason for this project is to meet the future needs of our customers in Champaign County," said Barry Suits, operations manager for the Champaign County District of Illinois American Water.

A long-range study initiated in 1996 predicted additional capacity would be needed to meet demands starting in 2008, officials said.

The water company said it's seen steady growth in Champaign County as its customer base expanded from 44,777 in 2000 to 50,300 today. The Champaign County district is not yet at capacity, but company officials expect to approach it soon. They noted that the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission projects the county will grow by 15.6 percent between 2000 and 2020.

The new treatment plant will have an initial capacity of 15 million gallons per day and be designed for future expansion if needed.

The company has identified three possible sites for the plant – all in west Champaign, close to the Mahomet aquifer – and hopes to choose one within three months. It would not divulge the sites, saying negotiations are ongoing.

Illinois American also plans improvements to its treatment plant on Mattis Avenue in Champaign, which was most recently expanded in 1991. It will include upgrades that should improve the plant's ability to manage water and expand overall capacity, officials said.

The Illinois Commerce Commission, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, local zoning boards and other agencies would have to sign off on the project, said Brent O'Neill, project manager for Illinois American Water.

The ICC would also have to approve any rate increases resulting from the project, officials said. Illinois American said it doesn't yet know how much rates might go up as a result of the new plant and other system upgrades.

Illinois American Water issued a "request for qualifications" to 20 construction and engineering firms on May 8. The company will choose three to four teams to submit formal proposals by Sept. 8. A decision will be made by October, and construction would likely start sometime next year, O'Neill said. The plant is scheduled to be in service by 2008.

A series of boil orders in the spring and summer of 2005, blamed on brief power outages, prompted of complaints against the water company.

City officials launched several moves, including support for legislation that would allow them to use eminent domain to buy the local water system without approval from the ICC. Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing went to Germany this spring to lobby Illinois American's parent company, RWE, to allow municipalities to buy their local water systems.

The company has steadfastly said the local system is not for sale. But the state legislation, which passed both the House and Senate and is awaiting action by Gov. Rod Blagojevich, is seen as a negotiating tool for the cities in discussions with the water company about improvements.

City officials said today the announcement could help reduce service problems as the county grows.

"We're happy that kind of capital is going to be injected into the Champaign-Urbana water infrastructure," said Bruce Walden, Urbana's chief administrative officer.

Prompted by the boil orders, city officials have been talking with the water company "for some time" about the need for additional capacity in Champaign County, Walden said.

"They've been talking about the possibility of building a new plant on the west part of the community," said Champaign City Manager Steve Carter. "With the boil orders we had last year, the need for that became critical."

"We're very pleased that they're ready to move forward," Carter said.

Prussing and Champaign Mayor Jerry Schweighart were not available for comment this morning.

Suits said the company has already taken steps to address problems with the boil orders and low water pressure in west Champaign, but the new plant would correct them permanently.

It added a generator to part of the existing water plant so it wouldn't lose pumping capacity all at once during a power outage, and it modified its pumping and distribution systems to allow storage systems to react more efficiently and lessen the impact of outages, he said.

"We're always willing to talk to the cities about issues they might have," Suits added.

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