Coordinated Water System Improvements

Rochester’s collaborative approach between departments benefits residents and helps minimize disruptions.

Coordinated Water System Improvements

Rochester Public Utilities water distribution crew members work to replace a gate valve as part of the city’s ongoing water distribution system upgrades. Team members include (from left) Maintenance and Construction Manager Douglas Klamerus and lead water distribution workers Rich Rain, Steve Quandt and Nate Blees. (Photography by Brad Stauffer)

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The team at Rochester Public Utilities, the city’s water services provider, knows a thing or two about good management. The utility won an award from the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies for exceptional performance in managing its resources to the benefit of its customers.

All this sparkling management in Rochester, Minnesota — maybe it’s something in the water.

It might be. The water source for the utility is the Jordan Aquifer, a vast subterranean pool from which seven states draw water. It is a hard water, but a palatable one. “Rochester is blessed with a high quality and abundant supply of groundwater,” says Douglas Klamerus, who manages maintenance and construction for RPU’s water division.

The water is pulled from 32 wells and released into 20 towers and reservoirs with a total capacity of almost 17 million gallons. The water is of such good quality that it’s distributed after chlorine, fluoride and a polyphosphate to combat corrosion are added. This is to say the city has no water treatment plant. “If our source was surface water, it would need treatment,” Klamerus says. “There is a significant savings in not having to do so.”

Rochester does sit on bluffs above the south fork of the Zumbro River, but that stream does not have sufficient flow to meet the city’s water needs. So, wells are sunk an average of 400 feet to the aquifer to pull up the bedrock water. The newest well was drilled in 2020-21 and is not yet online. On average, two of the wellhead pumps are replaced each year to keep the water dependably flowing.

It is the responsibility of Klamerus and his staff to keep the water moving through the wells to reservoirs and towers and, finally, to more than 41,000 customers served by some 600 miles of mains and lines. Department crews keep it all flowing and functioning by performing routine maintenance to valves and wells and periodic repairs to infrastructure.

For such work, the department has a Caterpillar 450F backhoe, a TRUVAC Paradigm hydrovac unit and a couple of dump trucks. Portable booster stations and other specialty machinery also are in the equipment yard. The distribution crew repairs all main breaks and undertakes minor projects. When new construction or major reconstruction is required, the work typically is contracted out.

Project alignment

The department’s working relationship with the city’s public works department was enhanced three years ago when the water department began an examination of its infrastructure with the aim of more systematically maintaining it. “We wanted to prioritize our water projects,” says Luke Payne, the senior civil engineer for water at the utility, “to establish which of our facilities was most likely to fail.”

Such review and analysis is not extraordinary. What was notable was the next step taken: meeting with public works managers to coordinate future maintenance and construction work. “We met with people there who were doing similar evaluations on street and sewer infrastructure. Through that we came up with our key projects.” That is, where it made sense, the water department and public works department agreed to align their projects.

Previously, the two departments had worked up their schedules with little regard to what the other department planned. “Public works would identify a street that needed resurfacing or a sewer that needed repairing and if our water main in the same area happened to need work, we would replace it at the same time,” Klamerus says.

Such coordination by happenstance was not the best utilization of water department or public works dollars. Payne was instrumental in working up a memorandum of understanding between public works and water works that not only fully coordinates such projects but stipulates shared costs and decision-making responsibilities. An HDR consultant, Kathryn Jones, helped a great deal by contributing technical analysis of water main breaks, Klamerus says.

This is how it works: A downtown area of the water system that had experienced more infrastructure problems than other areas also was a concern for public works management for other reasons. This confluence of priorities raised the area’s priority ranking at each department. Now, a contract is being bid that will fix both sets of problems. Payne and the water department will lead the project with input from public works. Expenses were identified and a share of the cost was apportioned to each department.

“It is a shared and fair approach to getting projects done,” says Payne of the arrangement. “That particular project wasn’t No. 1 on our list of work to do, but after aligning our need with public works’ need, it became the key project for us this year.” The department now works up its top 25 projects knowing the rankings are subject to change when alignment with public works is factored in.

“It is a mindset change,” Klamerus says. “Sometimes in municipal departments, doing what’s best for the customer isn’t always the mindset. Each department has its own budget and tries to maximize the work without any thought to who pays the bills. This is a real success for us.”

Payne says the city now has a more collaborative approach that benefits the residents and helps minimize disruptions. “Efficiency is important,” he says.

Likelihood of failure

Identifying potential problems in a water system is a science — mostly a computer science. It wasn’t enough for Rochester Public Utilities’ water employees to know that it had some infrastructure in the ground dating from 1887. If things were that simple, one would simply replace mains and pipe according to a seniority system — the oldest getting yanked first.

Klamerus and his water department staff incorporated other criteria in their decision-making to determine where to focus maintenance and new construction efforts. “We looked at a lot of components,” the manager says. They included, yes, the vintage of pipe, but also the periods when different manufacturing methods were used, different pipe materials, size of pipe and pressures exerted by the system in a particular location.

“We wanted to see if there was any relationship with all those variables and failure rates,” he says. Through computer modeling and Excel spreadsheet analysis, the department managers and engineers concluded that pipe installed between 1946 and 1969 was most vulnerable to failure. A thinner wall was used in the cast iron pipe of that era, which ended with the arrival of ductile iron pipe. Corrosion in the thinner pipe wall was a leading harbinger of failure in the mains, which mostly are 8- and 12-inch pipe.

As it turns out, the Rochester water system is about 75% composed of ductile iron pipe, with the rest being the more problematic cast iron. Klamerus and his analysts and planners are on it.

Another component factored into decisions about pipe replacement had nothing to do with pipe condition, but where a pipe was headed. The analysts examined not only a pipe’s likelihood of failure, but the consequences to customers if it failed. “We looked at where our critical customers are and how they are being served by our water system. For example, health care facilities certainly are critical facilities.”

Rochester’s Mayo Clinic not only serves many people in dire physical condition, it employs a lot of people. Some 36,000 of the 125,000 people in Rochester work at Mayo Clinic. “It is a huge workforce,” says Klamerus. “It is our No. 1 customer by virtue of its sheer size.”

And it’s still growing. Mayo Clinic is part of a Destination Medical Center expansion and has earmarked $3.5 billion for upgraded patient facilities and new buildings. To the water department, the expanded Mayo facilities in the downtown area meant greater demand for its product. The department’s response: A new well was drilled to add capacity and will soon be connected to the system. 

Measurable benefits

Yet another criterion that Klamerus and his engineers consider in evaluating maintenance projects is hazards. If a safety issue exists on a section of water main, that can lead to a higher ranking in the fix-it list.

“When you go to repair a broken main that’s buried 25 feet in the ground, the safety factor elevates significantly. So, we’ve given some priority to such areas and will eliminate the main at the depth and run a new one 7 feet deep.”

This is Minnesota, after all, albeit southern Minnesota. Average daily temperatures in winter months are way below freezing. Water mains generally are insulated by running about 7 feet below the frozen surface, but service lines are not and frequently freeze. The freeze-thaw cycle produces shifts in supporting earth around mains, however, and springtime can mean spring breaks. “I remember 2018-19 was a bad winter,” Klamerus recalls.

Most construction projects end in late October, partly because the local asphalt plant shuts down and resurfacing of dug-up roadways no longer is possible. If waterline work is happening in an unpaved area, the project might continue into December before crews call it a season.

Come spring, the coordinated maintenance undertakings of public works and the water department begin again. Klamerus was asked what measurable benefits have accrued from the new working relationship with public works. It stands to reason that savings will result, but it might be reassuring to see the data.

“I don’t know that we have done that yet,” he says. “We’re only about three years into the program. We want to circle back after five years to see the developing trends. But certainly, there are benefits to it. Our customers are the same as public works’ customers and anytime we can work together, there should be significant cost savings.”


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