FARGO — Work is expected to start in early June on a $123 million, three-year expansion of the Wastewater Treatment Plant in north Fargo that will also serve West Fargo and Horace and dramatically reduce pollution levels.

Wastewater Utility Director Jim Hausauer said the plant will double its capacity, and the expansion will also allow the facility to far exceed clean water standards.

Although he said the plant is already surpassing water quality regulations, the new facility will reduce ammonia-nitrogen and phosphorus levels further.

With the new technology, project manager Karla Olson of Apex Engineering said projections suggest a 30% reduction in ammonia-nitrogen and 80% drop in phosphorus levels in the Fargo wastewater discharge into the Red River.

For West Fargo compared to its current pond operation, the reduction by using the new Fargo plant will be 85% to 90% in ammonia-nitrogen and 80% in phosphorus.

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Olson said the reason for the lower removal efficiency of ammonia-nitrogen in Fargo is because the facility has a treatment technology for ammonia reduction in place; therefore, the existing concentrations are already low.

Hausauer said the reduction in those rates is "important in the Red River Valley" because of the agricultural industry, which contributes to nutrient levels in the river. Thus, he said the project will also be a big benefit for downstream users of river water.

Fargo has already been taking about 1 million gallons a day of wastewater from West Fargo since October, but with the expansion it will take the full flow of up to an estimated 3 million gallons. The growing community of Horace has been sending a small flow from the northern part of the city since April, but will also expand their capacity in the coming years.

A completion date of Dec. 31, 2022, for a substantial part of the project will allow the additional load from other communities, but also meet Fargo's growing needs.

This rendering shows another angle of the major expansion that will get underway this summer at the Fargo Wastewater Treatment Plant in north Fargo. Special to The Forum
This rendering shows another angle of the major expansion that will get underway this summer at the Fargo Wastewater Treatment Plant in north Fargo. Special to The Forum

The City Commission approved a bid from Fargo contractor PKG Contracting Inc. this past week, as well as $8 million for engineering and project management by Apex.

The next lowest bidder was a surprising $32 million higher, Hausauer said.

The coronavirus pandemic and new federal requirement for only American-made steel likely added 5% to 8% to the project cost, but state officials agreed with Hausauer that it would be best to proceed.

The project will be financed through a 30-year, 2% loan from the Clean Water State Revolving Fund through the state Department of Environmental Quality, which receives federal money under the national Clean Water Act that has been around since the 1970s.

Along with Horace, West Fargo and other plant users, utility payers in Fargo will pay off the loan, although the increase is expected to be minimal.

Hausauer said the city has some of the lowest monthly wastewater service rates in the region based on the average of 6,000 gallons of water use per month at $16.50. West Fargo's rate is expected to increase from $9. Other neighbors' rates are at $33.79 in Grand Forks and $38.32 in Moorhead.

Rates go even higher for other regional cities, including $40.33 in Sioux Falls, S.D., $51.95 in Bemidji, Minn., and up to $60.10 in Omaha, Neb.

Those "extremely low rates" are why City Commissioner Tony Gehrig said he was behind the project and supportive of the cooperation with West Fargo and Horace.

Hausauer said rates dropped from $19 in 2013 to the $16.50 rate this year for the average home.

"We'll have to get to $19 again eventually," he said "With that, Fargo rates are very favorable to other regional comparisons."

Any rate increase would have to be fleshed out when budgets are determined for 2021 later this year, he said.

Commissioner John Strand wondered if this was the right time for the project with the pandemic, but city Finance Director Kent Costin said the utility funds have a solid base with residential and commercial users paying their bills monthly.

"It's the most secure and least volatile" city funding source, Costin added.

Although Fargo has almost completed other improvements at the plant already, this is a much more major endeavor.

Hausauer said as the city grows, they have been doing a major expansion about every 30 years, starting in 1934 when the city had about 30,000 residents. As the population doubled, other expansions were done in 1960 and 1991.