SARANAC LAKE - Village officials raised concerns Monday about how the Saranac River flooding may have impacted two groundwater wells that are located behind the village Wastewater Treatment Plant.
The wells are slated to become the new source of drinking water for the community as part of a state-mandated project that's estimated to cost $10.7 million.
When the Saranac River began to surge over its banks in late April, the river flooded the wastewater plant, causing partially treated sewage to be released into the river. Village Manager John Sweeney said there was also a foot of standing water on the property behind the sewer plant, where the wells, which are currently capped, are located.
The village of Saranac Lake Wastewater Treatment Plant looks like an island surrounded by the flooded Saranac River in this photo taken from a helicopter on April 29. The open area in the upper right corner, which was under a foot of water, is where the village’s new wells are located.
(Photo courtesy of the Saranac Lake Volunteer Fire Department)
At Monday night's village board meeting, Trustee Jeff Branch said he's concerned the village could face sanctions from the state Department of Health if the wells were contaminated.
"I'm concerned that when we expend all this money that the Health Department may come by and say, 'Wait, you can't draw water from that,' or we're going to be under a consent order to boil water because the well pipe was flooded," Branch said. "Is there any assurance that is not going to happen, or can we get a statement from the Department of Health that that will not be a problem in the future?"
When the village first considered the idea of drilling wells near the sewer plant, Trustee John McEneany said questions about "how the two would mix" were asked.
"There was a study done, and that question was asked by somebody," he said. "They said there was no way that even if the clarifiers failed and dumped effluent on the sewer plant property, that it would never make it into the aquifer where we were drawing the water out. So, unless the flood is going directly down the well hole ..."
Sweeney said the village's engineers on the water project, Barton and Loguidice, are working on the issue with the Health Department.
"I'm hoping to get a response sometime in the near future," he said.
Sweeney also said the current plan calls for additional fill to be placed where the wells have been drilled, to protect the infrastructure from future flooding.
But Branch said he remains concerned.
"We all know we have the cleanest drinking water in the world right now," he said. "We're being forced to spend this money. I'm afraid that once we get it in, we could get a letter from the Health Department saying, 'Wait a minute. Flood zone. Boil your water. Drill another well.' I don't think it's going to happen, but a lot of the time things that come down the pike from the state offices don't make sense."
Meanwhile, another engineering firm is concerned that damage to the sewer plant from the recent flooding could impact the wells.
AES Northeast of Plattsburgh, in a report included as part of a flood impact statement filed last week by Sweeney, said the high flow rates in the Saranac River caused "excessive wear and tear" on the facility, including "permanent damage" to two of the plant's final clarifiers. It recommends full replacement of the clarifiers, which could cost $3.2 million.
The engineering firm's report also notes that a section of wall near the clarifiers appears to have failed under ground level, "which is of particular concern due to the proximity of the village's newly constructed municipal wells."
Sweeney told the Enterprise after the meeting that village officials don't know how the flooding impacted the wells, but he said there will be a "purification" process for the well water before the new system comes on line.
"We don't have any idea what has happened," Sweeney said. "Everybody has a concern, including myself. But these wells won't just come online and pump right in. They'll be tested, cleaned out, and a whole process will be worked through before we bring them online."
In an update to the board, Sweeney said he expects the water level in Lake Flower to continue to drop by about an inch per day.
"I think the best news is we're actually able to control the water that's coming at us from above us," he said. "For the first time in quite a while we're seeing reductions in the amount of water downstream."
The village has estimated the damage to village infrastructure from the flooding is $6.1 million. That doesn't include damage to the Franklin County-owned bridges in the village. Sweeney said the village plans to hire engineers to help come up with more specific damage estimates to be submitted to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.