Latham Water District Superintendent John Frazer Jr. (right) and Dan Marshall, the chief water treatment plant operator, watch massive water filters get cleaned. Jim Franco / Spotlight News
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COLONIE — It’s the one thing every person ingests every day — water.
And, most people just turn on a faucet with the immediate expectation of getting clean water at any time of day or night without any consideration to the complex, multi-million dollar process that involves the work of 55 fulltime employees, miles of pipeline, some chemicals and more than a little ingenuity.
“There are community members who have no idea where their water comes from or what it takes to treat it or what it takes to deliver it,” said John Frazer Jr., the superintendent of the Latham Water District since 2000. “Not enough people know, or more people should know, where there water comes from. It is the one thing we all put in our body every day and people can take that for granted.”
There is a lot happening at the Latham Water District that was established in 1929 when it began collecting well water and piping it to households. Soon, the town will hook up to Albany and use the city’s water as a backup and the city will use the town’s as its backup. It will allow the town to decommission the Colonie Reservoir in Clifton Park and sell the nearly 1,000 acres of land that surrounds it.
The dam creating the reservoir was built in 1952, and a year later the River Road plant was built. In 1969 the main plant was built further up the Mohawk on Onderdonk Avenue allowing the River Road plant to downsize to a pump station.
About 60 percent of the 430 miles of pipe that move on average 10 millions of water a day to 24,700 homes and businesses and 4,500 fire hydrants, were installed in the 1970s. Age, and the fact the pipes installed during that time were thinner than those installed prior and more brittle than those installed after, lead to more than 100 breaks a year.
Water is taken for granted, until you turn on the faucet and nothing comes out. Or worse, the state Department of Health issues a warning about finding a carcinogen that somehow got into the system and ended up in a glass on your nightstand.
Colonie gets its water from the Mohawk River. That may wrinkle some noses, given the reputation of the Mohawk and the history of man using it as a big toilet, but the town is not piping water directly from the river to a consumer’s tap.
A little, innocuous brink building along the Mohawk houses pumps that bring water from the river to the treatment plant on Onderdonk Avenue. As an aside, it’s a hot spot for fishermen because the constant flow of river water carries sources of food that in turn attracts game fish like bass, trout and perch.
That section of the process, getting the water from the river to the plant, are currently getting a $1.7 million upgrade. The pumps and hydraulics are 14 years old and move millions of gallons of water pretty much 24/7.
Once the water gets up the hill from the Mohawk, the process of making it suitable for drinking begins by mixing the water, at different speeds, and by adding coagulants to help granules of dirt and other solid particles attach to each other until they are large enough to settle out of the water.
The material that does settle out, called flock, is taken to the landfill and to satisfy state regulations, used as cover for the daily garbage intake.
The water is then sent through a series of 900-square-foot filters containing 31.5 inches of granular, activated charcoal and 12 inches of sand carbon. Every 120 days or so, water is sent through the filters in the opposite direction to keep them clean.
Through the process six different chemicals are added for a number of reasons including killing off microscopic organic organisms, lowering the pH value from about seven to 6.5 and to remove metals.
The entire process is monitored via computer and is frequently tested manually to meet state specifications and Latham Water District standards.
Once the water is ready to go, it is pumped from the main plant or the River Road pump station to one of nine towers. The natural law of gravity – yes, it flows downhill – is all that’s needed to bring the water from the individual tanks located about 500 feet above sea level to the individual faucets located at much lower elevations.
“It’s a very traditional plant,” said Dan Marshall, the chief water treatment plant operator, “We take water from the Mohawk, treat it with coagulants to settle out solids and other portions of flock and from there we send it through a filter with sand and granular activated carbon, and from there we change the pH to what we would like it to be in the distribution system and we add chlorine to disinfect it over time.”
The plant has the capacity to treat 31.5 million gallons of water a day, well under the top usage of about 23 million gallons used by town’s more than 81,000 resident and far less than the 10 million gallons of water used on average per day.
A new deal
The town recently struck an agreement with the City of Albany to work as each other’s backup water source. The $3.2 million project will connect to Albany’s water source at two locations: the three-basin reservoir off Albany shaker Road and at New Karner Road.
That project is going out to bid now with work set to begin this spring. Once it is complete, the town will no longer need the reservoir it has in Clifton Park called Stony Creek.
In 2009 there was a deal in the works to sell the nearly 1,000 acres of land and water to Clifton Park but that fell through and, according to a story in the Times Union, the town had put it on the market for $8.7 million.
The plot of land and the more than 1 million-gallon reservoir sits between Crescent and Englewood roads to the north and south and Vischer Ferry and Moe roads to the west and east.
The town purchased the land in 1949 and in 1952 the dam near Crescent Road was completed. There is a pipe line runs from the dam south, under the river to Niskayuna and then shoots up River Road to the treatment plant.
Frazer said when the last major upgrade was made in 2000, the projection was to generate 30 million gallons a day by 2025. Based on that projection, the town should be at about 14 million gallons a day now but is only at about 10 million so Frazer said the number of users is not growing as quickly as expected nearly 20 years ago.
“We are keeping an eye on water usage and if we have to make changes as far as capacity goes then we will but right now we should be fine well past 2025,” he said. “The Town Board and supervisor are very comfortable with the system and they know how important a robust and reliable water system is to existing resident and to attract new developers to town.”