GRAND RAPIDS WATER RESEARCH PROJECT:
Effort would convert closed plant into lab
BY SHARON A. HANKS
PRESS SPECIAL WRITER
GRAND RAPIDS -- What do you do with an obsolete water-treatment
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,
"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
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.