City hoping for good bids on $70 million sewage treatment plant project

North Lawrence waterline project completed

North Lawrence residents may not have noticed it, but Friday was an important day for that part of the city.

Construction crews completed a $5.6 million project that ran a new waterline underneath the Kansas River and into North Lawrence. Previously, the only waterline that ran from the city’s water treatment plant into North Lawrence was a single 16-inch line that is connected to the underside of the Kansas River bridges in downtown.

Those lines had begun to leak in recent years and created worries about how North Lawrence would have access to drinking water if that line had to be removed from service for a repair, said Dave Wagner, the city’s director of utilities.

The new project has solved that issue with a 36-inch line — the largest waterline in the city — that runs 70 feet below the water level of the Kansas River. The city used a special type of PVC pipe that is molecularly fused to prevent the likelihood of leaks.

You never know what type of question may become important at Lawrence City Hall.

The one on the minds of several top city officials currently: How many companies are interested in building a multimillion-dollar sewage treatment plant for Lawrence?

City commissioners at their Tuesday evening meeting are expected to approve a process for accepting bids from companies that want to build what is expected to be a $65 million to $70 million sewage treatment plant south of the Wakarusa River. Bids are expected to be opened Feb. 17. When they are, city officials will have a better understanding of whether the massive project will come in on budget. Currently, city utility department leaders aren’t sure what type of building environment the plant will face.

“We’re asking that question every day,” said Dave Wagner, the city’s director of utilities. “It is kind of like asking your broker what stocks to buy. Everybody has a different opinion about the market right now.”

Wagner said the market for building large infrastructure a couple of years ago was very competitive, as the number of projects had begun to slow. But now, an improving economy has work more plentiful, and no one is sure what that will mean for the the cost of the project.

“There is not a firm that does this type of construction work in every town, but we have our fingers crossed that there will be a lot of companies interested in building this one,” Wagner said.

The project has been years in the making, and some work already is underway. About 400,000 cubic yards of fill dirt have been added to the site, which is at a location the city is labeling 41st and O’Connell Road. The 538-acre site is immediately south of the Wakarusa River where O’Connell Road dead-ends at the river.

Crews also currently are burying 16-inch and 24-inch force mains that will carry sewage from the area near 31st and Louisiana streets to the sewage treatment site.

Wagner hopes to have the entire project done by the third quarter of 2017. When completed, it will be able to treat about 2.5 million gallons of sewage on an ordinary day. But during wet weather events, it can temporarily handle up to 12.5 million gallons of sewage treatment per day.

Much of that sewage will come from West Lawrence. Currently, sewage in West Lawrence travels to the city’s lone sewage treatment plant near Eighth and Delaware streets on the eastern edge of Lawrence.

But Wagner said that plant is near capacity, especially during heavy rains. The existing plant will remain in operation, but the new plant will relieve the strain that currently is placed on the facility. The new plant will be significantly smaller than the existing plant, treating 2.5 million gallons compared with about 12.5 million gallons for the existing plant.

Wagner, though, said the new plant will treat the sewage to a significantly higher level. The new plant will use additional steps to take phosphorus and ammonia out of the waste water before it is released into the Wakarusa River.

Wagner said federal regulators are insisting on the higher treatment standards. He said the city’s existing plant in eastern Lawrence eventually will have to be upgraded to meet those standards. He estimates that likely will need to be done by 2023.

The new plant will be paid for through rate increases that already have begun to show up on customers’ bills. In 2013, commissioners approved a new five-year rate plant that increases water and sewer rates by 5 percent to 7 percent a year, depending on the type of user you are. Rates are scheduled to increase by that amount each year through 2017 to pay for the plant and a host of other water and sewer projects.

Wagner said the five-year plan has been a critical piece to setting the city up to accommodate future growth. Sewer and water treatment capacities are major considerations in how much population a city can add in future years.

“I think Lawrence will be in an envious position compared to a lot of places,” Wagner said. “We’ll have done a lot in terms of treatment capacity, but also we’re doing a lot to improve the condition of the infrastructure that is in place.”

Commissioners meet at 5:45 p.m. on Tuesday at Lawrence City Hall.