Somerset water district working on contract with Oxbow

Somerset opting to take over ownership and operations of water treatment plant

[ By Katherine Nettles ]

The Somerset Domestic Waterworks District has determined that it would like to take on ownership and operation of the Somerset drinking water treatment plant, and is now working toward a contract with Oxbow Mining Company. Oxbow, which currently owns and operates the plant, is ready to step away from the operations, and the district board decided during a public meeting on March 5 to sign a contract with the mining company.

Oxbow operated the West Elk Creek coal mine in Somerset until 2013 and has maintained and operated the water treatment plant there since, selling drinking water to the Somerset water district. Oxbow mine president Mike Ludlow announced in January that Oxbow would cease operating the plant in July, and the water district has since been negotiating with Oxbow about timing and also consulting with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) about the costs of running the treatment plant.

District board president John Mlakar said all attendees in the district’s recent meeting agreed to move forward on the contract. “Everybody was 100 percent in support, all board members as well,” he said.

The district hopes to take over possession of the plant on July 31. “We’ve sent information we’d like to see in the contract to our attorneys. We are waiting to get that back to review in the next couple weeks,” said Mlakar.

He said he felt confident they will come to an agreement with the mining company, which will include the district taking over the plant and operations but the mining company maintaining ownership of the land beneath the plant and its associated water rights on the Gunnison River. “That would come with the guarantee that they will provide us water for the life of Somerset,” said Mlakar.

The district is working to whittle the treatment plant’s operating costs down for the small district with only about 62 water taps.

“The mine says it costs about $7,000 per month to run it, but we think we will be able to trim about $5,000 off of that to about $2,000, just by way of reducing human resources. Then we’ve applied for a small communities grant through CDPHE for $50,000, but we don’t have a match for it yet, so we are going to approach the county about it,” explained Mlakar.

Mlakar said the mine pays an operator for full time attendance, but the district has determined it only needs an operator about nine hours per week. “When we were doing the estimates on it, the class B operator said he would stay on at $1,000 per month.”

Mlakar said the district will also be raising water bills slightly and instituting late fees due to a large number of chronically late payments. “If those late bills kept happening, we wouldn’t be able to keep up operations,” said Mlakar of the slim margins.

The water district is looking into making improvements to the plant once it takes over, if it can find adequate funding and the support of constituents. These include a new aeration system used to lower water contaminants like trihalomethanes (TTHMs) for a cost of $15,000 and replacing two filters for about $2,000 apiece; engineering the system to improve efficiency; and converting to solar energy. Mlakar says board members have offered to contribute their expertise on various items, particularly solar technology.

“I am pretty confident that we could find 100 percent grant funding for the solar conversion,” he said. “We actually expect to make money on the solar, and we could back feed the extra energy through the grid,” he said.

The district has consulted an engineer who says he thinks he can make the plant run more efficiently in the future for a cost of $75,000 to $125,000 should the board agree to the work and find funding for it.

“We think it will all come together pretty quickly,” said Mlakar of the pending contract. “The rest we will get to when we can.”

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