Walla Walla bit by $35 million bug

In 1999 Walla Walla built a $15 million ozone water treatment plant to thwart cryptosporidia microbes. Now, a $20 million project is about to begin.

The intake point for Walla Walla water is in the Mill Creek watershed.

The intake point for Walla Walla water is in the Mill Creek watershed. Photo by Greg Lehman.

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WALLA WALLA — After years of studying, testing, proving and finally getting an OK from the state Department of Health, city officials are moving forward with a $20 million state-mandated project that will further reduce chances of a potentially deadly parasite in Walla Walla’s drinking water.

It will be the second multimillion-dollar water treatment project city water customers have paid for in the last 18 years.

Payments on the new project, which will use a slow sand filtration system, are expected to begin in 2017 — right after payments are finished on the prior $15 million ozone water treatment project built primarily to deal with the same threat: cryptosporidium.

Although the number of cryptosporidiosis cases in Walla Walla have been almost nil since 2000, when the state began tracking and reporting on incidents, the new project is part of a federal mandate. It was undertaken after municipalities in 2006 filed a federal lawsuit against EPA’s zero-tolerance rules regarding the cryptosporidium and were denied a judicial review.

Scientists first discovered the microscopic parasite in 1907. But over the next 70 years, little attention was given to it because it was not considered a human health risk. Then, in 1976, the first cases of humans contracting cryptosporidiosis were recorded.

Symptoms among people with healthy immune systems typically include one to two weeks of aggressive, frequent diarrhea coupled with severe abdominal cramps, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Young children and pregnant women may be more susceptible to the dehydration caused by diarrhea.

People with weakened immune systems, such as those with AIDS, cancer and transplant patients, could suffer further life-threatening complications, the CDC reports.

At about the time the first cases of cryptosporidiosis were making the medical journals in the mid-1970s, the newly formed U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was making news with major gains in improving drinking water safety.

But the agency did not consider cryptosporidium a major health risk until the 1980s. Even then, the primary focus was on reducing drinking water risks associated with bacteria like legionella and parasites like giardia.

Outbreaks of cryptosporidium through the 1980s were small, with the exception of a 1984 infection of 2,000 people in Braun Station, Texas, and a 1987 infection of 13,000 people in Carrollton, Ga.

Through the decade, there was another rising concern dealing with drinking water safety. The United States was seeing an increase in people with compromised immune systems because of AIDS, many of whom died because of gastrointestinal diseases.

In 1993, the focus changed after a major outbreak in Milwaukee, Wis.

A game changer

Health officials estimated that 400,000 people became ill in the Milwaukee outbreak. More than 100 deaths were believed caused by cryptosporidiosis contracted from what was thought to be safe drinking water.

The city was crippled with people who called in sick for weeks with persistent diarrhea and abdominal cramps.

The following year, Walla Walla County had its own outbreak among residents served by Hydro Nine Irrigation District.

Health officials believed a well was contaminated by a nearby leaking irrigation pipe.

Even after residents treated the water with chlorination, there were still three confirmed cases of cryptosporidiosis, and all from different households.

A survey of the irrigation district’s 96 households showed 69 percent reported diarrhea and 14 had seen doctors, according to a Union-Bulletin story at the time.

The source of the cryptosporidium in the 1993 Milwaukee outbreak was never completely determined. Studies suggest a major factor was a sewage treatment plant two miles upstream from the source of Milwaukee’s water — Lake Michigan.

But there may have been other causes. The parasite can live in and be spread by deer, elk and cattle, all common to the Lake Michigan area as well as the Walla Walla Valley.

Other major factors that have come to light since the Milwaukee outbreak are the inefficacy of chlorination treatment and the increased resistance cryptosporidium otocyst have in cold water, such as the waters of Lake Michigan.

The effect

Unable to ignore 400,000 illnesses, the EPA in 1996 toughened its standard for water quality and began working toward zero tolerance for any potential source of cryptosporidium outbreaks.

That was one of the main reason Walla Walla city officials built a $15 million ozone treatment facility that went online in 1999, one year before the state began collecting data on cryptosporidiosis as a reportable disease.

Walla Walla County woundn’t have its first recorded case until 2005, with no outbreaks then or since.

At about the same time the ozone project was being built, studies were coming forward showing that ozone treatment might not be sufficient to kill the cryptosporidium otocyst in colder water.

And four years after Walla Walla dedicated its new ozone treatment plant, the EPA in 2003 was working with state, regional and local governments to establish a new set of regulations that would be know as Long Term 2 Enhanced Surface Water Treatment Rule, short-handed to LT2.

Walla Walla Public Works Director Ki Bealey said that was when the city got first wind of the new rules that would require filtration for all water systems that use surface water.

LT2 was officially passed in 2006. It set deadlines for required monitoring of cryptosporidium and installation of approved filtration treatment systems.

That same year, Portland, New York City and Walla Walla took the EPA to court, claiming the new rules were not based on the best science, didn’t use proper cost-benefit analysis and failed to provide notice to the public, among other complaints.

The U.S. District Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., ruled against the cities.

Eight years later, the effects of LT2 are slowly trickling downstream to the 180 million people in the United States who get their water from one of 14,000 public waters systems that have sources of lakes, rivers, reservoirs or underground aquifers.

Across the state, Tacoma Water is wrapping up a $187 million filtration project to meet LT2 standards on the water it pulls from the Green River for some 600,000 customers.

In Jefferson County, which has had the state’s highest rate of cryptosporidiosis since 2009, the Port Townsend City Council in 2013 approved a $14 million filtration system to meet Department of Health mandates, according to an article in the community’s newspaper, The Leader.

Local costs

In Walla Walla, the cost will be $20 million to build a slow sand system to filter out cryptosporidium oocysts at the city’s two reservoirs that hold water piped down from Walla Walla’s Mill Creek watershed in the Blue Mountain foothills.

A two-year test pilot was approved by the Department of Health. Design of the final project is now near completion.

Bidding and construction will start in 2015, with completion expected in September 2017.

It is difficult to determine whether city water rates will go up or remain flat in 2017, when first payments are due on the new LT2 project.

Bealey said yearly payments on the $20 million LT2 project will most likely come in lower than the nearly paid-off $15 million ozone treatment plant. That’s because the project qualified for a 1 percent loan from state public works trust fund.

But city rates could still go up over the next three years for a variety of other reasons, Bealey said.

• The city is using a combination of reserve funds and money required to be set aside to pay the ozone project off about two years early. Those reserves funds will have to be replenished.

• In 2013, the city took a $1.5 million revenue loss when it had to renegotiate an energy buyback contract for the power it produces with the Mill Creek water treatment project. The market on energy had dropped significantly since the last contract.

• While most of the interest costs with the LT2 project are locked in at 1 percent, officials remain uncertain what rate they will get for the city’s $6 million “smart meter” project.

• The city’s new Water System Master Plan says that to maintain a healthy water system, the city must spend $1 million a year for maintenance and upgrades.

• Walla Walla is also trying to meet another state mandate to reduce the loss of an estimated 30 percent of its potable water due to leaking underground pipes to no more than 10 percent. That mandate is the driving force behind the new meter project and could lead to other costly projects.

• Next year will also see the last of five years of scheduled rate increases for the city’s Infrastructure Repair and Replacement Project.

Another factor that can drive up costs is inflation. Bealey said city projects have already seen a 20 percent increase in the cost of asphalt and expect other costs to increase as the economy improves.

“The big thing is we don’t want to see rate shock with the LT2 project and the meter project,” Bealey said.

Alfred Diaz can be reached at alfreddiaz@wwub.com or 526-8325.

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