By PETER H. MILLIKEN
The chief engineer of the Mahoning Valley Sanitary District is revisiting a 1950s plan in case Meander Creek Reservoir would become contaminated and unusable.
The backup plan calls for installation of a pump station and pipe to deliver Berlin Reservoir water directly to the district’s treatment plant.
It was never put into effect because it would have cost about $3.7 million when it first was proposed.
“It would have been much cheaper for them to do it back then compared to the cost today,” observed Anthony Vigorito, MVSD chief engineer, who estimated today’s cost at $20 million or more.
“It may have been too expensive at that time,” he said, referring to the 1950s.
When the idea was reconsidered in 1988, the estimated cost was $19 million, he said.
Vigorito said he not only reviewed the old plan, but asked MVSD’s consulting engineers for their estimates of what the project would cost today. He said he hopes to hear from them soon.
Vigorito said he revisited the issue after a Vindicator reporter inquired for a mid-July story about MVSD’s backup water-supply plan in case Meander Creek Reservoir would become unusable as a drinking water source due to an algae bloom.
MVSD serves about 220,000 people in Niles, Youngstown and surrounding communities.
“You definitely want to have backup sources,” Vigorito said.
MVSD is now nearing completion of its contract negotiations with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for a backup water supply from Berlin that could also be used in case of a drought.
A backup water-supply pipe with an intake near the bottom of Berlin Reservoir in about 50 feet of water near the Berlin dam already runs to Meander Creek in Ellsworth Township at a point before the creek enters Meander Creek Reservoir.
“We would have to have it,” June Lucas, a former state representative, said of a direct pipe that could be built from Berlin to MVSD’s treatment plant, completely bypassing Meander Creek and Meander Reservoir.
“We’d have to have federal help of some sort” to make it affordable, said Lucas, of Mineral Ridge, who served in the Ohio House of Representatives from 1986 to 2000.
“I don’t know that the consumer could bear that kind of increase,” in water rates necessary to pay for the project, she said.
“Our sewer and water costs have just skyrocketed,” in the Mahoning Valley in recent years to pay for system improvements, she said.
“There most likely would have to be a rate increase to pay for that,” Vigorito said of the direct pipe from Berlin to the MVSD treatment plant.
The increase could be “a few pennies” per thousand gallons of water used per customer, and the duration of any increase would depend on the terms of a loan the district might get to pay for the project, he said.
“My main concern would be the impact on the rates that MVSD charges us,” and whether Youngstown would have to raise rates for consumers to whom it distributes MVSD water, said Harry L. Johnson III, city water commissioner.
In evaluating the project, MVSD should consider whether it’s likely in a water emergency that conditions at Meander and Berlin would differ significantly, said Johnson, a former MVSD board member.
Funding sources could include low-interest loans from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, the Ohio Water Development Authority or the Ohio Public Works Commission, or possibly an OPWC grant, Vigorito said.
A rate increase could be used to pay back a loan, he explained.
In all of MVSD’s operation since its initiation in 1932, Meander Creek Reservoir has never been unavailable as a water source due to contamination, he said.
Potential reservoir contamination sources, however, include 182 oil and gas wells; 18 miles of oil and gas pipelines; a 72-inch, above-ground pipe carrying Canfield sewage to Mahoning County’s Meander Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant; and 145 road and eight rail crossings of the creek, the reservoir or its tributaries, according to MVSD’s drinking water source protection plan.
The plan, which is endorsed by the OEPA, was updated this year.
Vigorito said the biggest threats to Meander water would be an uncontrolled algae bloom or spills related to oil and gas drilling.
Stephanie Dyer, environmental program manager at the Eastgate Regional Council of Governments in Youngstown, said algae growth promoted by nitrogen and phosphorus pollution from farm and lawn fertilizer runoff is a significant potential reservoir threat.
“What happened in Toledo could happen here, just on a smaller scale” in the worst-case scenario, Dyer said, referring to the toxic Lake Erie algae bloom that made Toledo’s water supply undrinkable for two days during August 2014.
“It could happen quicker” on the smaller water supply lakes in the Mahoning Valley, she said.
Just across the state line, in Sharpsville, Pa., in response to a potentially harmful blue-green algae bloom, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers warned Shenango River Lake visitors last month to avoid areas where algae are present.
The corps warned visitors to that lake the algae can cause allergic reactions, skin irritations, and, in severe cases, liver or nervous system damage.
To address potential hazardous materials discharges from vehicle crashes, spill-containment systems have been installed at the bridges where Interstate 80 and the Ohio Turnpike cross Meander Creek Reservoir, Vigorito said.
The 72-inch sewer along the east side of the reservoir is above ground and would facilitate visibility for leak detection and repairs, he said.
“That’s a double-lined pipe, so, even if there was a leak in the inside pipe, the outside pipe would collect that,” Vigorito said of the sewer design.
William Coleman, office manager in the Mahoning County Sanitary Engineer’s Office, said the county has never had a problem with that sewer.
The Mahoning County commissioners recently approved borrowing $425,000 for a new sanitary-sewer line along Pineview Drive in Austintown to eliminate discharges from failing septic systems near the reservoir’s eastern shore.
Lucas said she is also concerned about pollution of the Meander watershed from a closed Canfield landfill, from former Mineral Ridge area coal mines and from oil and fuel from truck stops along Interstate 80 running off into the reservoir.
Dyer praised MVSD for its attempts to protect its Meander Creek Reservoir water source by having a fenced-in forest of 4 million evergreen trees around its shoreline to filter out pollutants and by forbidding swimming and boating at the reservoir.
Only on rare occasions is fishing from shore permitted at the reservoir, Vigorito said.