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The former mining town on the Upper Peninsula has made progress updating its water infrastructure. But there’s still work to be done.
Municipal water pipes used to break more frequently than they do these days in Ironwood, Michigan.
Bob Tervonen, the city’s utilities manager, recounted during a recent phone interview how in 2014 around 70 pipes failed. Repair costs stacked up. Each time a line has to be excavated and fixed it can cost the city between $1,000 and $2,000, according to Tervonen.
“Digging in the summer is a lot different than digging in the winter,” he added. “In the winter up here, you’re chipping through five feet of frost.”
With about 5,000 residents, Ironwood is located in the western corner of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, on the border of Wisconsin and about 14 miles south of Lake Superior.
Tervonen recalls a six-foot length of pipe that had been patched 10 times with what are known as “Handi Bands.” Assuming each repair ran about $1,000, he added, “that’s a $10,000 line.”
For a public utility that collected $1.8 million in charges for service during its last budget cycle, spending $10,000 on six feet of pipe isn’t ideal. But Ironwood has moved in recent years to avoid situations like this, carrying out aggressive upgrades to its water system.
The effort seems to be paying off in terms of preventing emergency maintenance and service disruptions. As of early May, the city had experienced less than six broken water pipes this year, Tervonen said. “That's better than one, one and a half a week,” he added.
‘System Is the Same Size’
Despite the improvements, some Ironwood residents complain that the local drinking water can be discolored and tastes bad. And the city continues to depend on old infrastructure to keep tap water flowing, such as a treatment facility built nearly 100 years ago.
President Trump is pushing for new spending on the nation’s public works—including water systems.
The White House is still working out the details, but has indicated Trump’s plan will incorporate $200 billion of federal funding over a decade and would also “leverage” private investment.
Meanwhile, the fiscal year 2018 budget proposal the president released last week includes deep cuts to existing infrastructure grant and loan programs, including those that small and rural communities have used to fund and finance water and wastewater projects.
As discussions continue to unfold in the nation’s capital about the federal budget and infrastructure spending, Ironwood offers a glimpse into some of the challenges smaller-sized public utilities encounter as they operate and maintain aging drinking water systems.
Some of the water infrastructure in the city dates back to Ironwood’s heyday as a hub for iron mining, a time when the local population was much larger than it is today. About a century ago, the city had roughly 15,000 residents, around three times as many as it has now.
"The mines put in the water and sewer systems,” Tervonen said, “and somewhere along the line they gave everything to the city."
It was the 1920s when mining operations in Ironwood began to shut down. The last iron mine there closed in 1965, according to historical information the city has published online. In the wake of mine closures, the number of Ironwood residents dwindled.
“The system is the same size,” Tervonen said of the city’s water infrastructure. “But the population is one-third of the size, trying to maintain it.”
Making System Upgrades
During the winter of 2009, a major water main ruptured in Ironwood, disrupting service for residents. “We had to shut down the schools,” Tervonen said. “We had a boil advisory.” Repairs were carried out in temperatures that dipped below zero with the windchill.
At the time, the 16-inch diameter main, which had been installed in 1923, was around 86 years-old.
The pipe is about three miles long and connects Ironwood to an area north of town where groundwater is sourced. After the break, the main was fixed and it remains in service even today. But over the last decade Ironwood has worked to build a new pipeline along side of it.
Federal grants and loans have helped to make this and other water and sewer system updates in the city possible.
Ironwood received an especially large influx of grant funding in 2009 for water and wastewater projects under the federal stimulus spending package known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. This funding totaled $6,675,844, according to federal figures.
The city has accessed other grants and low-interest loans for water and sewer projects through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, including $2.9 million in loans the department awarded to Ironwood last September for water system improvements. USDA announced at that time it would provide $1.2 million of grants for sewer projects in the city as well.
In his budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year, Trump has called for eliminating funding for the USDA Rural Development program that extends these grants and loans.
About two miles of the new water main is currently complete in Ironwood.
Tervonen said the USDA loan will make it so the city can finish the last mile. “I'm not saying if, I’m saying when that 1923 main blows, I have another line right next to it that can feed water into our system.”
“We can't do this without USDA,” Tervonen added, as he discussed financing for the project.
The city has covered other improvements with ratepayer revenues alone. Over two years, for instance, it saved up about $1 million in revenues to replace pipes in a part of the city where water flowed to a handful of homes through antiquated, one-inch lines.
Tervonen estimated that the city was digging in the neighborhood a minimum of six times each year to fix leaks and that there could be problems with water pressure if, say, people in two different houses in the neighborhood tried to use their showers at the same time.
Since the upgrades were completed about five years ago, the city hasn’t had to repair any pipes in the area.
Even though Ironwood has been investing in its water system, not everyone is happy with the water.
“It sucks,” said Debbie Davis, a city resident.
“You can’t drink it,” she added, when reached by phone recently. “It’s so full of ore that it turns my shower curtains orange.”
The water, according to Davis, has a “tainted taste to it.” She’s lived in the city about 30 years and says the drinking water has always been subpar during that time. “I just scrub my toilet with cleanser, change my shower curtain every other month and buy bottled water.”
Asked about this criticism, Tervonen said that complaints about the city’s water weren’t common.
“The last time I had a dirty water complaint was when we had a fire in town,” he said. The blaze happened earlier this year and to put it out firefighters used large volumes of water for several hours, which led to some customers getting water that Tervonen described as “filthy.”
“She might be on a dead end or something,” the utility manager said as he pondered Davis’s complaints. It’s possible, he explained, for water in places where pipes end to get stagnant.
Ironwood’s water does have “a little bit higher level” of iron and a naturally occurring substance in soil and water called manganese, according to Tervonen. Manganese can cause odors, an unusual taste and discoloration in water.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Safe Drinking Water Information System lists only one health violation for the city, it occurred back in 2011 and involved coliform, bacteria that can be found in feces.
Davis wasn’t the only one that gave harsh feedback about Ironwood’s water. Two other residents who did not want to be quoted by name offered similar complaints.
One woman who has lived in town nearly 20 years said the water tasted as though it came from a “moldy old mobile home tank,” that it has “kind of a mildewy taste” and that once in awhile “it’s a little off color.” She said she filters the water before drinking it.
The woman also said she was glad the city had replaced some of its old pipes and that, other than the water’s odd taste, she was not dissatisfied with her service.
A woman in her fifties, who was born and raised in the city, said the water was “not good,” that “it sucks” and that she buys bottled water to drink. She described a chlorine taste the water can have and said that it gives her heartburn.
“I use it make coffee,” the woman added. “But I don’t drink it if I don’t have to.”
Tervonen acknowledged that not everyone in Ironwood is enthusiastic about the water’s flavor. “People say it tastes funny. But if I go up to Houghton, where I grew up, it tastes different over there,” he said. “Every community, their water tastes different for whatever reason.”
He said a sample of the city’s water had been selected last year as one of five finalists for having the best taste at a Michigan rural water conference.
This honor didn’t do much to sway the opinion of some locals. “I get the smart comment,” he said, “‘well, everybody else’s water must taste terrible.’”
Not everyone knocks the taste of Ironwood’s water. Karen and Mario Barbera own Joe’s Pasty Shop. A pasty is a small pie crust that is typically filled with meat and potatoes. The Barbera’s have well water at their home, but city water at the shop, which is located in Ironwood.
“He’s more of a water drinker than I am,” Karen said recently by phone, referring to her husband. “How do you feel about our water here?” she asked him. “Do you drink it?”
“Yeah, I drink a lot of it,” Mario could be heard saying in the background.
“How’s it taste?” she asked.
“Tastes okay,” Mario replied.
While the city has made strides upgrading pipes and installing the new water main, parts of Ironwood’s municipal water system could still use work, according to Tervonen.
The city is seeking $2 million in grant funding to upgrade its drinking water treatment plant, which Tervonen said is “a 1923 system.” The facility also depends on computer equipment that is about 20 years old. Planned improvements are expected to cost roughly $4 million.
If the city can get half the money in grants, Tervonen said, “we’ll find $2 million somewhere.”
Ironwood also has about 70 World War II-era fire hydrants, he noted, which the city considers defective and has been gradually been working to replace at a cost of about $10,000 each.
There were around 280 of the hydrants in town when Tervonen started working at the city’s water department 24 years ago.
He expressed pride in the improvements made to the local water infrastructure since then.
“Twenty years ago, if somebody said we’re going to get all this stuff done, I would’ve told them they're nuts,” he said.
Tervonen recognized that future generations would have to pay off the loans Ironwood has taken on to finance projects. “But, hey, they're walking in on a pretty darn good system,” he said, one that is expected to last for another century. “That's a good thing.”
Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter for Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.