ASHLAND The Ashland City water system is in compliance with state regulations, but has to continue strides to keep up improvements while facing a crumbling decades-old system, according to a report delivered by Blue Water, a consultant firm.

Greg Heitzmann and Pete Goodmann, of Kentucky Blue Water and the Louisville Water Company respectively, delivered the good news to the city commission Thursday.

“Water is the No. 1 public health issue this commission faces,” Heitzmann said. “It's been several years in compliance, but this city needs to continue addressing this.”

For the last several years, the city's water system has been under an agreed order with the Commonwealth of Kentucky to get its levels of disinfectant by-products into compliance. That's been done, but new regulations expected in the coming year regarding lead and galvanized pipes could be a “heavy lift” not only for Ashland, but water systems around the country, Heitzmann and Goodmann said.

“There's going to be federal monies out there for it, but there needs to be an inventory of what pipes need replacing,” Heitzmann said. “Under the proposed regulations, if it is unknown what the pipe is made of, it needs to be treated as if it is lead.”

Heitzmann and Goodmann focused on the water treatment plant and the water distribution system.

On the water treatment side, Goodmann said great strides have been taken to ensure there's no caustic build-up at the plant — corrosion that blocks flow.

He also recommended the carbon powder, which absorbs containments in the water (basically what's in a Bretta filter or a Life Straw) be added at the input point by the river or at the retention pond in order for the water to be treated longer.

Steve Cole, the city engineer, said carbon powder is currently being used in the treatment process, but not at the intake point. Over the course of treatment, the carbon powder is removed, Cole said.

Heitzmann said the city should continue its improvements at the water treatment and “let it ride” for a while, tweaking the processes over time.

Water distribution is still the albatross around the city's neck, Heitzmann reported. With 300 miles of aging pipes (some a century or older), 15 pressure zones and 20 pump stations, Heitzmann said the system is a bit complicated by modern standards.

“Ashland has a unique situation, because the land along the river is flat, but the terrain in the county is hilly so there are additional challenges than Louisville, where there are only four or five pressure zones and 4,500 miles of pipe,” he said.

Heitzmann recommended the city compile a database of lead and galvanized pipes and undertake replacing those anytime they are exposed. He said the city's strides to replace pipes — an annual $1 million-a-year investment — are laudable, but need to be stepped up in order to keep up the pace.

“Right now the pipe breaks are on track to exceed last year and are four to five times the industry standard,” Heitzmann said. “It's going to take decades to get caught up on this.”

Part of that will be seeking more monies — the city has invested $2.5 million into pipes this year thanks to COVID money and infrastructure bonds — by setting up a 10-year capital plan and identifying $50 million worth of projects.

“The state and feds will help out with these projects if you have identified the problems and have a plan to tackle them,” he said. “Right now there is an unprecedented amount of money available for utilities and the Biden infrastructure plan being debated could bring more dollars. There is also an existing program with FEMA that get funding as well.”

Heitzmann also recommended combining pressure zones, keeping up regular water monitoring, focusing on retaining certified operators for the system, and keeping up with chlorine injections on the far ends of the system.

“EastPark is a great example of boosting the system with chlorine but there are other areas of the system that need to be looked into,” he said. “That's a double-edged sword, because if there's too much chlorine, it can raise the level of disinfectant by-products.”

City Manager Mike Graese said the personnel issue is a double-edged sword — right now there are a lot of “gray hairs” and “young pups.” The trouble is, there's no one in the middle.

“We have a gap that needs filled,” Graese said.

The commission thanked the men for their report, with Mayor Matthew B. Perkins having employees from the water treatment plant and the water distribution department stand for recognition.

“In years past, our commission did not give you the tools you needed to be successful,” Perkins said. “I hope the last couple of budgets show that we are trying to give you everything you need to do your jobs right.”

Heitzmann said the system will continually need improving, but the city has a great start.

“Once you're out of the hole with compliance, you can start moving forward in improving the processes and stepping the system up,” he said. “It's baby steps at first.”


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