Oak Creek to get new water system

Water will go through new filtration process that will make it cleaner, healthier, safer

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By next summer, Oak Creek residents will be turning on their taps and drinking water pure enough to be bottled.

The water will be such a change from what residents have been drinking for the past 60 years that some might call to complain about the new taste, Oak Creek Director of Public Works Jim Photos said.

What's most important is that the water will be better. Safer, healthier, cleaner, he said.

It also could save the town money through preventing loss of treated water and by reducing man-hours and the use of chemicals.

"What really drove us to this was the fact that this plant is 60 years old," Photos said. At statewide meetings last year, Photos said he talked with community managers who were looking at replacing plants that were built in the 1970s.

"It's going to be modernized. It's something that's way overdue," he said.

Contractors are working throughout the winter to build a new water treatment building and bring in a state-of-the-art water treatment facility. Concrete for the building was set two weeks ago.

The installation of this new technology will mark one of the first times that it is used in the United States, with half a dozen treatment facilities of this type constructed in Australia and Europe.

The technology is a type of microfiltration, in which impurities are filtered out of water when it passes through a series of slim "straws" made of a strong membrane. Hundreds of thousands of straws form a bundle to filter hundreds of thousands of gallons of water during a day.

Water molecules can pass through the membrane, but pathogens and other contaminants cannot.

Microfiltration technology was developed more than a decade ago, said Ray Hamilton, public water unit manager for Carter Burgess, the planning company that designed Oak Creek's project.

Older microfiltration designs bring water through the straws and push it outside, trapping the contaminants inside the straws. But because the inside of those straws is only about the width of a human hair, they clog easily, Hamilton said.

The new technology, called the Axia system, sucks the water up through the straws, leaving contaminants outside the straws and clean water on the inside. The system also submerges the straw membranes, making it less likely they'll plug.

"It's an improvement over the old design," Hamilton said.

It's a good choice for mountain communities because of the presence of Giardia, a micro-organism that can be passed through water, he said.

Although the project is costing about $1.2 million, with about half of that devoted to buying the microfilter units, the town will save money because the new technology will require fewer man hours and less chemical use.

The town is funding the project with a $980,000 loan from the Colorado Drinking Water Revolving Fund, as well as with a $300,000 grant from the Colorado Energy and Mineral Impact Assistance fund. The town also will provide $250,000 from its capital expenditures.

The decision to pick the newest, though most expensive, technology is one that will benefit the town down the road, Mayor Cargo Rodeman said.

"Yes, it's the most expensive option, but it's also the option that will take us five decades down the road," Rodeman said.

Since the 1940s, the town has relied on sand filter technology. With that plant, raw water is combined with a chemical that makes some contaminants stick together so they can be removed easily.

Then the water is filtered through sand filters, which trap smaller particles. Finally it's treated with chlorine to kill bacteria.

The current system has been in operation for about 60 years, so it's not automated.

In the next few years, regulations from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will have stricter filtering standards. At that time, the town probably would have to replace its system anyway, said Stan Gale, Oak Creek's water and sewer plant operator.

"You either have to upgrade or else you're going to violate the regulations and you get fined and you have to replace the plant anyway," Gale said.

The improvement also marks what the town hopes to be the first step in a series of infrastructure improvements that will better serve residents and make the town more desirable to new residents, he said.

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