Van Buren Township wanted a less utilitarian look for its 149-foot water tower. Windows open onto three floors: two for future office space and one for cellular service providers that want to put an antenna on the tower. Rather than house telecommunications equipment outside, the third floor has electric service and provisions for a natural gas-powered back-up generator. Photo: David Trott/Blue Sky Photography, Inc.

By Stephanie Johnston


OWNER: Van Buren Township (Mich.) Department of Public Works Water & Sewer Division
AEC FIRM: Wade Trim
COST: $11 million
COMPLETED: July 1, 2011

The projects we select every year for this special section must have been completed in the previous calendar year, so (technically) this one doesn't qualify. But because this cash-strapped township in the nation's most cash-strapped state is advancing improvements that will maintain quality of life for decades to come, we're making an exception.

Property values in some neighborhoods have increased recently, but this year's general budget is still 16% less than two years ago. Having anticipated shortfalls, elected officials and township employees have found ways to support planned enhancements designed to offset lackluster property tax revenues by tempting new business into the community.

So although this article focuses on a series of drinking water initiatives that had been in the Water and Sewer System Master Plan since 2004, other public works managers are equally busy: coordinating stormwater pollution prevention with regional colleagues, using Community Development Block Grants to build sidewalks, designing award-winning park upgrades, and equalizing the sewer system by diverting rain to a 1.3-million-gallon basin until the treatment plant can accept the extra water.

The water system had similar equalization challenges as well as no back-up connection for a 2-square-mile area. In addition, Public Works Director Thomas MacDonald wanted to lower expenses by renegotiating his contract with wholesale supplier Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD). With no source of its own, the township buys 1 billion gallons annually. Their goal was to “peak-shave”: buy water between the lower-priced hours of 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. and store it until it's needed.

To that end, ongoing engineering consultant Wade Trim recommended building a 2-million-gallon tower with windows to complement internal lighting of future workspace inside. The composite structure – a concrete base supporting a welded steel tank – was the first one with windows that Chicago Bridge & Iron Co. has built.

To streamline the flow of water between source and consumer, five miles of pipe were installed or enlarged to close loops and six meter pits were built or upgraded to integrate new parts of the distribution system with the township's Wonderware control software. Pamar Enterprises Inc. handled this portion of the project.

The biggest challenge here was linking the north and south parts of the system, which were separated by a lake. On one end, 8-inch ductile iron pipe was burst and replaced with 12-inch PVC that was then connected to 18-inch HDPE (high-density poly-ethylene). 1,500 feet of the HDPE pipe was installed under the lake via a single continuous directional drill. Bore length, 50 feet of elevation change, and varied ground conditions expanded bore time from one to three months.

Meanwhile, Detroit had installed a main that put a township road out of commission for more than a year. MacDonald and Wade Trim Project Manager David Nummer had planned to add a meter pit at that location, but rather than tear up the road again they asked DWSD to install a flange connection near the tower so they could link to Detroit's system there instead.

Adding the actual controls also pushed the November 2010 completion date into this year.

Bidding requirements related to the federally backed revolving loan precluded the township from awarding installation to the company — Utilities Instrumentation Service Inc. — that was already providing SCADA services, so the township removed that work from the project and awarded it to the company using all local funds. This required the team to coordinate the work of various contractors, which delayed things somewhat. But by the time you read this, the system will be online.

MacDonald and Nummer spent almost two years putting together financing, but the effort paid off. Initially expecting to finance $11 million with a 20-year, 2.5% state revolving loan, 40% of that amount qualified for principal forgiveness — turning the loan into a grant — through the stimulus package. That left the township needing to borrow $6.6 million, which will be repaid through the Water & Sewer Division's capital improvement fund.

And here's another reason we're highlighting this project. Given the financial state of all levels of government, this team embodies the problem-solving skills all public agencies need to continue providing cost-effective service. Van Buren Township will pay 27% less for water this year and, if it wants, can pay off its loan within seven years.

That's the kind of return on investment the public and politicians understand.

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