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Smithfield to fund study of RO plant expansion

Smithfield will pay the engineering firm Kimley-Horn roughly $10,000 to create a plan for expanding the town’s reverse osmosis drinking water plant beyond its current capacity of 1.5 million gallons per day.

The matter was included in the consent agenda for the Town Council’s May 4 meeting, with the motion to approve that agenda passing unanimously.

According to the town’s director of public works, Jack Reed, the primary need for boosting the plant’s capacity is to allow for redundancy. Currently there’s only one reverse osmosis skid, which is what actually removes contaminants from the water. If that skid goes down, the entire plant cannot function.

It will also allow for growth and development, said Vice Mayor Michael Smith during the meeting.

But Isle of Wight County’s plan to buy water from the town to supply the replacement Hardy Elementary School that is to break ground this year, and the surrounding neighborhoods outside the town’s incorporated limits, is also a factor.

Last October, the county’s public utilities director, Don Jennings, presented Isle of Wight’s Board of Supervisors with two options for supplying water to the school: drill a new well — one equipped with reverse osmosis filtration to remove the excess fluoride in the existing school’s water supply — or buy water from Smithfield that’s already been treated.

Jennings had estimated the cost of the well at $1.2 million, plus an additional $100,000 a year for the county to operate its own RO system. The Smithfield option carried a higher upfront cost — $2.2 million — but no operating costs, at least, not for the county. The county chose the Smithfield option.

But that option will increase the demand on the town’s RO plant by an additional 414,000 gallons per day, or roughly 40%, according to Reed.

Currently, town water customers use about 700,000 gallons per day. But if the study identifies a supply and demand need related to the Hardy deal, that would give the town the footing to ask the county to help the town foot the cost of the improvements, Town Manager Michael Stallings said.

Reed anticipates the Kimley-Horn study taking approximately six weeks and the recommended RO plant improvements costing upwards of $1 million.

Asked if the $1 million-plus for water treatment plant improvements had been included in Jenning’s $2.2 million estimate last fall, Stallings said he wasn’t aware of Jenning’s estimate but was “sure that the RO plant improvements are not part of that.”

According to Assistant County Administrator Don Robertson, Jenning’s estimate wasn’t factored into the $27 million the county had budgeted for Hardy when it held a public hearing last September on whether to borrow upwards of $30 million for the project and other capital needs.

The county has negotiated similar water agreements with Smithfield before. In 2018, the town agreed to continue selling water to the county for residents of the Gatling Pointe housing development, located just outside the town’s limits, in exchange for buying an equivalent amount from the Western Tidewater Water Authority — an intergovernmental authority that includes Isle of Wight County and the city of Suffolk — within the next few years for residents on the southeast end of town near Smithfield High School.

Last October, Jennings had suggested such an arrangement be part of the Hardy agreement as well, stating it would help keep Smithfield within the limits of the town’s state groundwater withdrawal permit, while at the same time adding usage equivalent to several hundred customers on the county’s system to help offset Isle of Wight’s annually increasing cost of participating in the 2009 Norfolk Water Deal.

But according to Stallings, there’s currently no need for the town to buy water from the county to offset the additional water the county would use for Hardy and the surrounding neighborhoods.

The Norfolk deal was intended to wean Western Tidewater localities off their dependence on groundwater, which Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality says has reached unsustainable demand. The terms allotted Isle of Wight 1.5 million gallons per day of surface water from the city of Norfolk as of 2020.

Of this, the county was only using about 700,000 gallons a day, but per the terms of the deal, is obligated to pay for its full allotment whether it uses that water or not. By the time a new Hardy is built in 2022, Isle of Wight’s allotment will be up to 4 million gallons per day.