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GRAND RAPIDS WATER RESEARCH PROJECT: Effort would convert closed plant into lab

05/02/2002

BY SHARON A. HANKS
FREE PRESS SPECIAL WRITER

GRAND RAPIDS -- What do you do with an obsolete water-treatment plant?

Some people say the 90-year-old former Grand Rapids water plant -- a red-brick Mediterranean revival building with a green-tile roof, spreading over 50,000 square feet on six acres of land -- would make a perfect laboratory to advance the technology of cleaner drinking water.

A group of environmentalists, scientists, educators and engineers have been working for nearly two years to raise $21 million to open a world-class water research site on the city's northwest side. The nonprofit group called Global Enterprise for Water Technology contends water treatment has not kept pace with the growing threat of modern-day water pollutants.

They're still far from their goal but aren't about to give up yet, either.

Built in 1912, the historic plant successfully functioned as the Monroe Avenue Filtration Plant for the Grand Rapids area until 1992 when it was closed because the city had expanded its newer plant on the shores of Lake Michigan. Research is now usually done in small laboratories that don't allow new technologies to be tested on large-scale, real-life scenarios.

"Water-treatment technology has changed very little in the last century," says Thomas Newhof, a Grand Rapids civil engineer and GEWT board president.

Nearly all filtration plants today rely on the same rapid-sand filtration technique invented almost 100 years ago, he says. The technique was designed to remove contaminants, such as farm waste, sediment, algae and other bacteria, from a primarily agrarian society. People were sickened by these pollutants until municipal water-filtration plants opened in the early 1900s.

"How many of us would go to a car dealer and buy a 1912 auto?" asked Newhof, a past president of the Michigan section of the American Water Works Association. "It's got four wheels and runs, but our modern society wouldn't tolerate it. It's old technology."

Newer threats to water supplies come from chlorine-resistant organisms, antibiotics, germs, drugs, chemicals and sewage runoffs. Since Sept. 11, bio-terrorism also has been on the minds of water plant managers.

"We know these threats are out there," Newhof says. "How bad does it have to get before we do something?"

Mackenzie Davis, a professor of environmental engineering at Michigan State University, said the current system is not designed to trap the micro-contaminants that can slip through sand filters.

"We haven't a clue sometimes as to what the technology should be when somebody asks: How are we going to treat this water?" Davis said. "These are some of the long-term issues that this treatment plant could address on a full-size scale."

Supporters of the project are attracted to the closed but still functional plant for several reasons. It has access to three water sources: Lake Michigan, nearby water wells and the Grand River. And, as a pioneer model for the drinking-water industry for decades, the facility is highly regarded as a historic landmark.

GEWT members say one-fourth of the plant's capacity -- 10 million gallons of water daily -- is adequate to conduct plant-scale research. The remaining space could be renovated into laboratories, meeting rooms, conference areas, a public museum and offices.

In 1999, Grand Rapids business owner Andrew Dykema bought the plant from the city for $400,000 to lease it to GEWT.

GEWT has raised about $300,000 in cash and in-kind donations so far.

Members aren't ready to quit fishing for funds yet and say they could get their project started with half as much as their ultimate goal.

Dykema's son, Jim, says his father isn't ready to scuttle the group's dream, either.

When the Monroe Plant opened, it was the nation's second water plant to use new filtration methods that eventually eliminated typhoid from Grand Rapids.

In 1999, it was voted one of Michigan's Top 10 civil engineering achievements of the 20th Century by the Michigan section of the American Society of Civil Engineers, joining a list of projects which included the Mackinac Bridge.

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