Video: Northbrook trustees debate fix for village water issues

NORTHBROOK — Northbrook homeowners and businesses are faced with millions of dollars in higher water rates to just bring their water system up to the level they already paid to achieve – three years ago.

The money would straighten out the water main-breaking havoc that began after the erection of the village’s new water tower in 2011, and the resultant failure of the tower to achieve its mission of improving water pressure on the village’s west side.

“I made a mistake six or seven years ago when I voted for the new water tower,” Trustee Michael Scolaro said June 17. “I wish I had that vote back.”

Scolaro said he wasn’t convinced that he should vote now, either, for any of three fixes that would cost $85 million, $47.3 million or $6.7 million.

The most expensive version would drive water rates up 33 cents per 1,000 gallons for 10 years; a middle option would cost 22 cents for the seven years between fiscal years 2016/2017 and 2023/2024.

Nine cents for a single fiscal year, 2016-2017, would cover the cheapest.

The village is already poised to bank part of the cost of any of the three options, after trustees in April approved a hike in the water rates from $4.08 to $4.90, which will raise $5 million by 2015/2016. They knew then that something needed to be done, but they weren’t sure what, until a recently-received report by consultants MWH Americas had given direction.

All of the trustees seemed dead-set against the two more expensive options after a full-Board committee discussion June 17.

Trustees A.C. Buehler, Todd Heller and Robert Israel supported the cheaper option. Village President Sandy Frum seemed to be leaning toward the cheaper option, but backed the request of trustees James Karagianis and Kathryn Ciesla for a delay for more data from the Northbrook Public Works Department.

The Board will return to the discussion in another non-voting committee session prior to a July 8 regular Board meeting.

“I understand that having low water pressure is really not acceptable,” Ciesla said, but added, “I don’t think a nine cent or 33-cent increase is going to hold.

“We spent multiple million dollars on a water tower. If we spend multiple millions on this, I have to be convinced it’s the right way to go.”

She also wanted to know what data led the longer-serving trustees to back the Huehl Road tower: “I have to understand why you guys did what you did.”

The $2.5 million, million-gallon water tower was erected on Huehl Road in 2011, and was intended to give west side residents and the Sky Harbor business park at least 45 pounds per square inch of pressure, and to increase capacity in the water system.

Public Works Director Kelly Hamill said June 17 that the pressure was let into the new system carefully and gradually. “We got up to 8 psi (more) in the western portions … and up to 12 in other areas.

“We had about 160 water main breaks in seven months. The most we had ever had in a 12-month period was 126. Our average is 85.”

Each break costs about $6,000 to make right, not including the damage to customers.

Eventually, the water level in the big tower was reduced to about 10 percent of its capacity to get the main breaks under control. The old 500,000-gallon “Save Ferris” water tower on Cedar Lane, which was to have been taken off-line, remains filled to capacity.

As a result, much of the village’s west side, especially west of Landwehr Road, still doesn’t have enough pressure.

Though trustees have asked for more data, the most significant data may already exist. Plotting of the water main breaks indicates that very few of the breaks took place on the west side, close to the tower, but instead, they mostly broke in the middle of town.

That’s where the water is carried by a lot of cast-iron pipes made in the 1940s and 1950s. Pipes of that vintage have become known for lack of longevity among water engineers nationwide. Pre-World War II pipes – and even pre World War I pipes – in Northbrook and elsewhere, often outlast these decades-younger pipes.

More modern ductile iron pipes, like most of those used on the northwest side, aren’t seen as good as the very old cast iron pipes, but they’re better than those made in post-World War II America.

Some of these facts were used in the middle- and lowest-cost plans to create two-zone systems. In both, the old tank would handle most of the town. In the middle-price plan, or “large two-zone system,” the new tank would be relegated to serving only the west side of town, basically west of Pfingsten Road. In the “small two-zone-system,” the new tower would only serve the northwest corner to just north of Mission Hills.

The consultant figures that if there weren’t water-main breaks on the west side before, there still won’t be in a segregated system. And if the new tower isn’t connected to the older part of town, that part will be safer, too.

In both two-zone versions, much of the cost is to replace any questionable west-side pipes, to keep them from breaking.

The “small two-zone system” isn’t expected to raise as much of the southwest corner of town to above 35 pounds per square inch as the bigger two-zone system would. But MWH lead engineer Paul Moyano said that neighborhoods can be brought in piecemeal. And they’d be expected to be better right away, better than they are now.

The $85 million option would keep the entire town as a single zone, but would require strengthening it by replacing about 35 miles of pipe.

Much of that may have to be replaced eventually anyway – but not right away.

Moyano told trustees that there did not seem to be anything wrong with the planning of the current system, and said that if he had been involved years ago, he wouldn’t have predicted so many water main breaks. He added that, partly due to elevations around town that can vary as much as 40 feet, a two-zone system is likely to be the ideal.

Northbrook sells water to both Riverwoods and the Mission Brook system, and is looking to find new customers. Moyano said all the new systems could accommodate more water sales.

Karagianis said he wasn’t convinced that a two-zone system would stop the excessive main breaks. Neither was Scolaro.

“I’m not sure we have to solve the problem,” Scolaro said, adding that water pressure complaints by both businesses and residents have been few.

“Houses are selling on the west side. Sky Harbor seems to be relatively thriving. I’m not sure what the problem is.”

One problem, Village Manager Rich Nahrstadt answered, is that hydrant flow might not be adequate to efficiently fight fires.

Another, Buehler said, is that capacity is still not sufficient.

“I think that staff has made some valid points here,” Heller said. He said that the single-zone system and the large two-zone system were both too expensive, but the small two-zone option made sense.

“The original goals are still valid goals,” he said. “I don’t see where that has changed over the years.”

And he didn’t want to say later, “Oh my God, why didn’t we have increased pressure to fight that fire?”

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