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Westminster secures extra federal funding for project to boost water supply

Westminster has learned it will be receiving double the federal funding that officials were expecting for the city’s pending water reuse initiative.

The city hopes that initiative will serve as a drought-resistant solution to an ongoing issue with water scarcity that could ease the tight budget on water and sewer resources for growth projects. The city plans to pilot the program for about eight months, followed by a more permanent implementation if all goes well.

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The city’s Public Works Committee discussed the progress of the project in its July 16 meeting, announcing that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation would contribute 50% of the funding for the project rather than the 25% the committee expected.

The initiative is designed to take already-treated water from the wastewater treatment plan and purify it through a state-of the art process so it can be returned to the city’s reservoir, where it can be reused.

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Location was a factor in getting the extra contribution from the bureau, Glass said. The bureau was interested in having a reclamation project outside of the West Coast, where they are more common.

That unique aspect to the project was a benefit when the city sent a grant application to the bureau. The grant usually means a 25%/75% split except for highly rated projects, according to Jeff Glass, director of public works.

“It turns out we here in Westminster are just about as dry as it is on the West Coast,” Glass said.

The bureau also rated the project highly because it’s planned to be put into use in the city rather than as a research project.

The grant application process “was quite the effort and I’m really happy that things turned out the way it did,” Glass said.

The 50/50 split would mean Westminster is responsible for a $350,000 contribution toward the project. The city’s fiscal year 2021 budget includes $250,000, but Glass said the city included several items in the grant request that were paid for in FY20 and that the city hoped to have reimbursed.

The grant will be made official after Aug. 31.

Going forward, the water reuse initiative faces several other approvals before the pilot can begin. Glass estimated it would be started in the fall.

One step that will be required is a study of the city’s reservoir to check whether level of pollutants like phosphorus could cause issues. Nutrients like phosphorus can feed invasive algae that takes over bodies of water and harm wildlife and the ecosystem. The highly treated water through the water reuse system would be added to the natural waters of the reservoir.

The Maryland Department of the Environment is requiring the study, Glass said. The pilot program could take place simultaneously with the study.

An outside party will have to do the study; the city currently has two bidders, with the longer study costing more. The choice between the two will be decided by a vote from the Westminster Common Council at a future meeting.

Public works staff recommended the more intensive study. While he predicted that both studies would come back with “a zillion questions from MDE,” the longer study would allow the city to spend more time doing the project than answering additional questions.

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The public relations firm hired by the city to inform the public about the project returned a revised communication plan to the city last week. Glass said it was important to line up their work with the progress of the pilot project because it is important to have momentum once they begin public outreach.

The water reuse initiative is one of several projects in Westminster to address the shortage of water and sewer resources. One is upgrading the pipes through the inflow and infiltration project to cut down on the water lost to leaks.

In the past year, the situation has created tension between the city and the county, as well as with the Board of Education, when one possible building site for a middle school had to be taken out of consideration because it would not be able to get water and sewer allocated quickly enough for construction.

In 2017, the city put a temporary moratorium on development for several months due to an unexpected stall in a water source going online. Hoping to prevent a similar disruption in the future, the council passed water and sewer allocation policies. They rely on a complicated Master Distribution plan to put available water and sewer into “buckets” for different sorts of projects.

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