Fixing a leak: Water towers in need of repair

DeKALB - Bryan Faivre noticed an unusual amount of ice building under the main storage area of DeKalb's east water tower last winter. Once the ice melted, water began spraying out through two leaks under the tower, and in April the tower was shut down, said Faivre, DeKalb assistant public works director in charge of the water division. A three-quarter-inch piece of steel on the 750,000-gallon tank is being replaced, but the 56-year-old tower needs more work to continue pumping water for the city, including a paint job to help the tank withstand the elements. Money for repairs and maintenance on DeKalb's four water towers is one of several factors that led to increases scheduled over the next five years in the city's water rates. Operation costs also continue to rise, and other parts of the water system, such as water mains, are aging, Faivre said. Repairing the leaks will cost the city $50,800, according to the public works department. Painting the tower is expected to cost another $616,000. About two years ago, it was recommended the city repaint the east tower, but not enough funding was available at the time, Faivre said. “It's hard to say if a new paint job then would've stopped this leak,” he said. “It's something a 50-plus-year-old tower might've developed anyway. Unfortunately we weren't able to generate that much revenue at the time, because everything was going toward operational expenses.” Between 2002 and 2007, costs for chemicals and fuel for water treatment rose between 100 and 160 percent, according to a study by the city's public works department. Personnel expenses rose 56 percent during that time, according to the study. “It's a fact and a necessity that the city needs to prepare funding for infrastructure that continues to age,” DeKalb Public Works Director Rick Monas said Monday. Painting water towers can cost as much as $650,000, but it varies depending on how much work the tower needs, Faivre said. The American Water Works Association, a nonprofit organization focused on safe water practices, recommends water towers be repainted every 15 to 20 years. The east tower was last painted in 1990, Faivre said. DeKalb's water is pumped by nine wells and stored in four towers. The wells normally run at night, during “off-peak” time when electricity is cheaper, Faivre said. It costs twice as much money to run them during the day. Despite losing the east tank's storage capacity, the wells haven't had to pump in the daytime, Faivre said. But if the tank was shut down later in the year, they might have. “Come August, especially when (Northern Illinois University) comes back, it puts a big demand on our system,” Faivre said. “We won't run out of water, but it will cost more.” Starting in November, water rates will increase in increments each year until they reach $3.17 per unit in fiscal year 2013. The increases, combined with a flat $5 service fee for water, are expected to keep revenues ahead of costs through 2013, according to the study. The new rates were approved June 23 by city council with a 6-1 vote, with 6th Ward Alderman David Baker voting no. Painting of the east tower has not been scheduled.