ALPENA — For generations, schoolchildren glad for an escape from the classroom have toured the Alpena Water Treatment Plant, climbing its spiral staircase and treading along a subterranean pipe gallery, peering into low-ceilinged rooms and learning — for those who paid attention — how clean water reaches their kitchen sink.
When he started work at the plant about 20 years ago, Michael Collins, now operations supervisor, spent night shifts learning what pipes went where in the intricate network that turns Lake Huron into tap water.
The plant, celebrating its 100th birthday this year, hasn’t hosted a school tour since before the start of the pandemic.
Collins, wielding a stick-turned-pointer held together by electrical tape, talked with gusto about the inner workings of the treatment plant, tracing the water’s path along a 1960s hand-drawn map of the facility that hangs above a stairwell.
He misses the kids, Collins said, eagerly leading a one-person tour through the building he calls “the most important building in town that nobody knows is here.”
Built in 1922 and updated four decades later, the Water Treatment Plant pushes out about 2 million gallons of clean water a day.
“It’s a washing board when we could have an LG washer,” Collins said. “But it still does an excellent job.”
A mile or two south of the city’s wastewater treatment plant, which cleans discarded water before returning it to Thunder Bay, the Water Treatment Plant adjacent to Mich-e-ke-wis Park processes 3,000 gallons a minute to be pumped to homes, businesses, the city’s water tower, and fire hydrants.
The average home uses 150 gallons of cleaned water a day. Only a small percentage of that gets consumed, while the rest gets used for showering, washing cars, flushing toilets, or watering lawns, Collins said.
A detailed report Collins meticulously prepares each year (“Nobody ever reads it,” he said) displays the consistently stellar level of cleanliness of the water produced by the plant.
Despite intake pipes much closer to the surface than at some other locations around the Great Lakes, the plant regularly pumps out water 60 times cleaner than it has to be to meet regulations.
“It’s a Great Lake,” Collins said of the plant’s water source. “Most of the world would love to have our water.”
To water drawn in through the plant’s pipes, automated systems managed by the plant’s five employees add chlorine and other chemicals, including a coagulant that, when mixed with the water in giant tanks built during the facility’s remodel, make sand and other debris drop to the bottom of the water.
While machines like oversized pool cleaners clear away the resulting sludge, the water flows through filters of activated carbon and sand and “comes out the bottom really clean,” Collins explained.
After a final injection of bleach, the now-drinkable water winds up in one of two clearwells.
The proposed 2023 state budget, awaiting a signature from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, allots $6 million for the replacement of the clearwells, which are in such bad shape the city had to install 100 stabilizing columns inside to hold the roofs up.
The impending replacement will wreak havoc on the underground hallway where heavy blue pipes interlace along both walls and loom overhead.
“We’re basically going under your kitchen sink,” Collins explained as he entered the hallway. “If you had three million gallons of water.”
Many of the pipes will have to be re-routed to accommodate the new clearwells, to be installed in a different location than the old wells.
The resulting chaos will mean more reliable storage with more water storage capacity, enough to accommodate more and expanding businesses as the city grows, Collins said, patting the blue pipes like old friends.
In his office, where yellowing papers hung on rods hold floorplans and other detailed drawings, Collins offered one of the last remaining copies of a cartooned booklet entitled “The Story of Drinking Water.”
“The kids fight over these,” he said confidingly.
In a corner room resembling a high school science lab, beakers and tubes line marble counters while an oversized computer screen blips data atop another map of the facility, this one modern and crisp.
Vials in a small refrigerator hold water samples turned yellow from a testing chemical. Collins once did the math and realized the plant conducts about 78,000 water samplings each year, he said.
In a storage room Collins said he would love to turn into a bed and breakfast, an enormous tank holds one of the chemicals used to clean the city’s water.
They could use a new tank, but they’d have to remove a section of the roof to get it in, Collins said.
Some city leaders have rejected his suggestion that they install garage-style doors in an upper-story wall so a machine can more easily drop off chemicals.
They don’t want to spoil the building’s historic look, Collins said, standing in light filtering through 100-year-old glass block windows.
“She’s old,” he said of the facility. “Sooner or later, we may need a new one.”
Until then, he’ll continue to check chemical levels, monitor pipes, fix what needs fixing, and maybe, on occasion, lead a tour.
Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @jriddleX.