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Citizens want conservation, quality assurance in water study

Posted: October 27, 2011 - 12:07am
City and Borough of Juneau Director of Engineering Rorie Watt holds a noon meeting Wednesday in the Assembly Chambers on studying an alternative drinking water supply for the town.   Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
City and Borough of Juneau Director of Engineering Rorie Watt holds a noon meeting Wednesday in the Assembly Chambers on studying an alternative drinking water supply for the town.

Citizens responded positively to City and Borough of Juneau Engineering Department Director Rorie Watt’s outline for the upcoming water study.

As Watt explained the four main categories of topics to be included in the study, public comments indicated a need for more education and awareness about the limited water supply (a need for conservation), and for the study to include ways to detect errors in human action early on.

About 20 people showed up to Wednesday’s informational meeting about the water study. Watt said last week’s meeting also had roughly 20 attendees. He hosted four “intro to the AJ Mine” meetings prior to the water study sessions to get people caught up on the topic.

The draft water study focuses on four categories: Gold Creek and the existing situation; water system expansion feasibility; current risks to Gold Creek water system; future risks to Gold Creek (AJ Mine related).

Watt explained the issues under each category that will be explored, and encourages the public to offer more.

Existing situation

“Our current situation, what it is today and how much water we use,” Watt said, will be explored. “There will be an analysis of Gold Creek water rights. We the city have water rights in Gold Creek, as does the power company. There may be residual water rights required for fish or other (Department of Natural Resources) issues. It is not widely understood what our right to Gold Creek is.”

Watt explained in the 1970s there was a lot of study done by the city on the water system and that’s when Gold Creek was chosen as its water source. Since the early ‘90s through now, the city has been in “supply mode,” Watt said.

“We haven’t been thinking about the future with regards to water,” he said.

Also since that time there are more high-amount users of water — cruise ships, the brewery and others. In that time the water system hasn’t grown significantly in capacity.

“It is important that we understand exactly what is our water use, and what it may be in the future,” Watt said.

The study will include review of current agreements with both Gold Creek and Salmon Creek. It also will feature a map of existing resources in the current system and discussion of Thane residential issues. As discussion of reopening the AJ Mine began, some Thane residents were concerned about a back-up system should their wells become compromised. Thane is one of the few areas in Juneau that is not connected to city water.

Water system expansion

Water system expansion is likely to be complicated and with significant costs. Watt said the water system was designed around Gold Creek and the network isn’t likely to be easily reconfigured should it use another primary water source. Currently Gold Creek supplies about two-thirds of the city’s drinking water. Salmon Creek provides the remainder, however that source is offline parts of the year and is subject to high turbidity. When that occurs, Salmon Creek also isn’t used because there is no filtration system. Gold Creek also does not have a filtration system, but is a well system. Watt said filtration systems tend to be incredibly expensive, so if the city does expand or duplicate its water sources it will more than likely be another well system.

Included in the study will be possibilities of increasing Salmon Creek’s supply, the cost of improving it for year-round use with a filtration system, analysis of other tertiary water sources and costs of developing them, cost of extending water service to Thane and analysis of funding sources.

Watt said studying a Mendenhall Valley source is also a good idea since the largest sector of Juneau’s population lives there now. Currently water is pumped from downtown.

“There may be other efficiencies to be found,” Watt said. “What about Lemon Creek, Fish Creek? We could even be looking as far as Herbert River. If Gold Creek were unavailable at all or if we can’t increase the water we need for community growth, where are we going to get it?”

One person asked how having a duplicate system would affect the city’s fire insurance (ISO) rating. Watt said he wasn’t terribly familiar with how it would affect ISO, but knows that several factors are involved including locations of fire stations, training and amount of water available. Watt said that would be important to understand better.

Another person asked about the drain tunnel and wondered if more study would be done on landslide potential. He said in the big landslide in the 1920s that was fatal, the cause was apparently from water flowing through it.

One woman asked Watt to include information from Alaska Electric Light & Power on a timeline for the dam and how that might be replaced.

Watt also mentioned this summer there were periods of lower water availability and heavy water usage. One woman said most people weren’t aware of that, and suggested conservation methods be looked at in conjunction with expansion. She suggested metering as one method.

“We look to expand the water system for growth, for redundancy,” Watt said. “It is easy to think we don’t have supply problems, but we are limited.”

Larri Spengler, Thane resident, suggested the city also conduct an awareness and education campaign on the limitations of the city water system.

“Who in Juneau with all this rain thinks they need to be watching their water?” she asked. “Who even thinks about water?”

Current risks

This section will look at the effects of the AJ drain tunnel, as well as past mining activity in the area including Ebner, Perseverance and Echo Bay.

“What exactly did they do in the past?” Watt asked. “What chemicals did they use and what’s left?”

Watt said there also are portions of the tunnel that go through “bad ground” according to miners, which means the material is “shaley” and there has been significant rock fall from the ceiling of the tunnel in those sectors. Watt said things will be very different if the tunnel collapses, so the study also needs to focus on costs of rehabilitating the tunnel and what exactly could happen if it does collapse.

Watt said the city does periodically test the water from the drain tunnel as a result of Echo Bay’s time within the mine. The city must monitor the discharge, because it was permitted.

Other questions the study is expected to answer are what risk levels other Southeast communities have with their water systems. Watt anticipates also looking at other Alaska and Washington towns of similar size.

Future risks related to the mine

Future risks will be evaluated in part based upon the AJ Mine Advisory Committee’s work around what would be acceptable with a “small mine concept” idea. The idea centered around an Echo Bay staff proposal for a smaller mine concept.

“As we talk about the potential risks, we are talking about that model,” Watt said. “It will show what could happen if there were human error or a problem at the mill, or during the exploration phase, etc.”

Watt said this sector of study will include answering questions like how much water would the mill require? How much does Kensington Mine use? Watt said Kensington would be closest to what kind of mine the AJ would be, not like Greens Creek Mine.

“When Echo Bay had all their problems, it all happened during exploration,” Watt said. “We will talk about what exactly would happen during exploration and try and talk about naming and quantifying risks.”

Watt said there will be two different areas of risk — above and below the drain tunnel. He said both have unique risks associated.

Spengler suggested in evaluating risks of the mine, the city should look at not just the risks associated with the small mine concept, but also find ways to detect illegal or inappropriate activity.

“How could you build into it that that would be detected before it would get out of hand?” Spengler said.

Watt said the AJ Mine Advisory Committee report suggested the city water department and the operator work close together.

• Contact reporter Sarah Day at 523-2279 or at sarah.day@juneauempire.com.

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