Cloquet Utilities Manager Ross Biebl sits in the conference room and checks the status of the city’s new water treatment plant with an iPad.

The device is connected to a desktop computer in a neighboring office, but Biebl is demonstrating the remote capabilities of the plant that came online in December.

The approximately $7 million facility pumps approximately 250,000 gallons of water to city residents each day, but more importantly it can be monitored remotely by an internet connected device. Biebl or other water department employees can check how the plant is running from home — something extremely important as the COVID-19 outbreak is causing more people to work remotely.

“Most of our utility infrastructure can be monitored and operated remotely,” Cloquet Public Works Director Caleb Peterson said. “All of our wells, the water treatment plant and our major lift stations we can control via computer without being on-site.”

Peterson said the only department operation that can’t be modified for lower levels of staffing is snow removal.

Staff would need to be on-site to add more chemicals to the treatment tanks or other tasks that require physical labor, but the new plant and much of the city's infrastructure requires minimal staffing to continue operating in times of emergency, Peterson said.

He also said the department has reinforced the need to wipe down tools and equipment when employees are done to help keep things clean and prevent the spread of the virus.

The new plant was designed to remove iron and manganese from the city’s water supply — particularly from Well 8 near Pine Valley Park, one of the city’s five sources, which is high in manganese.

“Through the addition of chlorine and potassium permanganate, you oxidize the water, which brings the manganese out of the solution,” Peterson said. “That brings it out of the water, then it flows through a filter media bed and then we pump it to distribution just like we would to any of our wellhouses.”

Well 8 was shut down several years ago at the guidance of the Minnesota Department of Health. The levels of manganese were not in violation of MDH requirements, but there was a health risk, so the city stopped using it until the new plant was opened and the water could be treated properly.

“We are well below both the health risk standard and the secondary standard,” Peterson said. “We’re essentially at zero or as close to it as you can practically be.”

Biebl — who manages the day-to-day plant operations — said the plant has worked well since it began operation. When the plant first began treating water, it took some time to fine tune the treatment process, but it has gone smoothly since. Biebl noted that no water was pumped out to residents from the plant during the process.

The City of Carlton also recently upgraded a smaller water treatment plant for its residents in 2019. The updated facility — located near South Terrace Elementary School — has similar capabilities as the one in Cloquet, including the ability to monitor and make adjustments by phone or tablet device, said Public Works Superintendent Derek Wolf.

The Carlton plant is much smaller — pumping an average of 60,000 to 80,000 gallons per day — but provides similar services to residents. The facility cost $3.4 million, with 63% of the project funded through a Minnesota Public Facilities Authority grant.

“We have the capacity to run substantially more than that through the plant, but currently that’s what the city is using,” Wolf said. “There’s room for expansion, but it’s not overbuilt by any means.”

Wolf said he and Carlton Mayor Mike Soderstrom have done some strategic planning in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak to ensure the safety of employees and residents throughout the crisis.

“The upgrades to the water treatment plant have made it easier and more efficient for the city to take care of the residents and their needs,” Wolf said.

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