In a joint session Thursday, July 15, of the Baxter City Council and the Baxter Utilities Commission, council members — following the commission’s recommendation — voted to approve a contract with Northern Plains Contracting Inc. for rehabilitation of the city’s water treatment facility.

Clocking in at $1,598,000, the 2021 water treatment plant filter rehabilitation improvement project is $650,960 less than estimated costs, before contingencies, submitted by a consulting engineer from architectural-engineering firm Short Elliott Hendrickson Inc. Consultants noted a 20% allocation for contingencies, or $319,000, may be necessary to complete an overhaul of the water treatment facility to incorporate biological filtration methods, as well as other amenities and architectural features necessary to meet the city’s treatment needs.

“We still needed to focus on getting the water plant up and running. That’s our first priority. Our second priority is budgeting and into the future. The third is probably tank operation at the plant, to get it more efficient and save money.”

— Trevor Walter, Baxter public works director

Not only does the Baxter facility have to be repaired after one of its four filters failed last year, staffers and commissioners noted, but Baxter is looking for ways to affordably overhaul and upgrade its water filtration system so that it can handle a high influx of water, steadily flowing and peaking during summer months, decades into the future. The local watershed, which features high concentrations of ammonia, iron and arsenic, among other contaminants, requires the facility to filter and refilter the water supply. This stresses the current treatment plant, which isn’t built to handle such a heavy workload in an efficient manner.

Coupled with contractor costs and other expenditures, the city is budgeting a total of $2,182,550 for the initiative. Consultants noted — all things considered — the four bids on the table for consideration were good, solid options.

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Northern Plains Contracting Inc.’s bid was the lowest of the four, sitting at the bottom of a cluster of three that were very close in price range.

“We’re a little bit high,” said Kevin Young, a consultant and water operations specialist with Short Elliott Hendrickson Inc. “The bidding climate has been a bit difficult lately with COVID and supply chain issues that we've seen disrupt bigger projects. We're getting better bids than we expected.”

The current state of the water treatment facility presents a multi-layered issue, noted Public Works Director Trevor Walter. On one hand, he said, it may be natural to look ahead and fixate on the viability of biological filtration methods — which could be significantly more efficient, requiring less in the way of costly infrastructure and amenities — but there’s other concerns. It isn’t yet known if biological filtration will work for Baxter, Walter said, and in the meantime the city needs to get its current facility back into operation, as well as contemplate long-term performance concerns and budget considerations.

Every consideration — long-term and short-term; temporary fix or structural overhaul — has to be anticipated at each step of the process, Walter said.

“We still needed to focus on getting the water plant up and running,” Walter said. “That’s our first priority. Our second priority is budgeting and into the future. The third is probably tank operation at the plant, to get it more efficient and save money.”

The issue of water — a typically abundant resource in the Brainerd lakes area — has taken on new dimensions and urgency after the council implemented watering restrictions during an emergency meeting June 9. A failure in Baxter’s water treatment plant, the summer influx of residents and visitors, little rain and hot temperatures are all combining to put a strain on the city’s water supply. Because of issues with the water treatment plant, Baxter is currently purchasing water from Brainerd Public Utilities.

Issues initially came to a head at the water treatment facility after engineers discovered one of the facility’s filter caps was inexplicably failing late last year. The Baxter water treatment facility is also somewhat limited because it was designed in the late ‘90s to be a limited usage or temporary amenity, which has not been reflected in the city’s filtration needs over the intervening decades, consultants noted in prior meetings.

During a Jan. 20 workshop, staffers noted the plant has four filter pumps when it probably should have eight to account for the consumption, as well as to address high concentrations of arsenic, ammonia and especially iron in the watershed. To filter out the water properly, it required the current plant to complete 300-400 backwashes (or a second cycle of filtration) a year, while an average water treatment facility of a comparable municipality typically requires roughly 150 backwashes per year.

GABRIEL LAGARDE may be reached at or 218-855-5859. Follow at