Voters overwhelmingly approve a new water treatment plant, thanks to the City’s educational and personal efforts
By Mayor Steve Harding
Seldom in government does 73 percent of the voting public agree on anything. Even less often do 73 percent of voters agree to something that will cost them more money. But that’s exactly what happened this past June in South Dakota’s capital city, Pierre, when voters decided they were ready for the City to build a water treatment facility.
The $37 million facility will be constructed in a City park near the Missouri River waterfront. The ultra-filtration system will pull surface water from the river, treat it and then move it to the distribution system that serves the community of 14,000 people. The large investment will add an average of one dollar a day to each residential water utility bill.
The treatment facility will replace the City’s decades old well system, which pulls raw groundwater, treats it at the wellhead, and then pumps it to six reservoir storage units for distribution. The well system has ample capacity (pumping and treating up to 5.5 million gallons daily) and has always provided water that meets all federal and state drinking water safety standards. Unfortunately, the groundwater has high levels of iron and manganese. Although the mineral content currently causes no regulatory concern, much of the community find the dark stains it leaves on sidewalks and in appliances off-putting.
In fact, people are so bothered by the side effects of the mineral content that when the City conducted a community survey in 2015, 64 percent of respondents said the City should consider building a facility to combat the high-mineral content.
“Let’s just say that the City Commission can take a hint,” said Pierre Mayor Steve Harding, with a smile.
In response to the survey, the City Commission built a water study into the next year’s budget. The comprehensive study considered long-term needs and capacity, as well as treatment options. The options included building a water treatment plant to treat surface water from the Missouri River, building a water treatment plant to treat groundwater, buying water from a rural water system, or continuing to treat water through the current well system.
After nearly a year of studying the options, the consultant hired to complete the study recommended a plant to treat surface water at an estimated cost of $37 million. Mayor Harding said that, almost immediately, the Commission knew this was a decision that should be put to the people.
“We took our marching orders from the public,” said Mayor Harding. “We knew they wanted to explore the option; we didn’t know how much they’d be willing to pay for improved water quality.”
Harding added, “This is a really big investment that directly impacts the finances of every household in town. We made a very big effort to make sure all of our citizens understood both the positive and negative consequences of the decision.”
To help educate the public, the City rolled out a communication plan that included multiple direct mail pieces, a webpage dedicated to the project, and earned social media components, as well as a series of public meetings to fully explain the project, lay out the financial impacts, and answer questions.
“We held forums in different parts of the community to help encourage all of our community members to be fully informed on the issue,” Mayor Harding explained. “It was really reassuring to see the significant turnout we had at each of our meetings and the cross-sector of our community that attended.”
Some people had concerns about losing green space to the new facility. Technical questions about the filtration process and its alternatives weren’t uncommon. A few people asked about how the Pierre plant would compare to other river communities. Certainly there were people with financial questions – including one man who winked and introduced himself as “I is the poor people” and spoke in support of the project. Many questions were raised about the health impacts of the high mineral content in the water.
Shortly before the vote, a grassroots group came forward promoting the water treatment project and distributing yard signs throughout Pierre. Still, going into the June 5th vote, Harding says the Commission wasn’t positive which way the vote would fall.
“I grew up in Pierre, and with the exception of college and the military, I’ve lived my entire life in Pierre,” Mayor Harding detailed. “There has always been some grumbling about dark water stains, but I was very surprised at the margin of the vote.”
Even with long-standing concern, getting 73 percent of voters to be undeterred by a rate increase is no small feat. Mayor Harding gives the community members, as well as its elected leaders, credit for the project. He says that it is a great example of government working for its citizens.
“First, we have community members who are willing to engage and voice their ideas,” said Mayor Harding. “We also have a city commission who’s willing to listen and staff who are willing to do the work.”
Following the June vote, the City immediately entered the design stage for the project, which is expected to take about one year. It also moved forward with a water rate increase. To meet debt requirements, the financing for the water treatment facility is dependent upon rate increases. Rate adjustments will be made incrementally between now and the completion of the project, which is expected to wrap up by 2022.
Steve Harding is Pierre’s 19th Mayor. Harding was elected Mayor in 2017. Prior to be elected Mayor, Harding served as a Pierre City Commissioner for nine years. More information can be found at ci.pierre.sd.us