AZTEC — The city of Aztec approved spending nearly $400,000 to update and automate its outdated water plant Tuesday evening.

City commissioners approved funding for long overdue upgrades to one of the water plant's four distinct water treatment "trains." A train is a water treatment system, and all four are contained in a single building.

This is the second of three infrastructure upgrade projects planned for the Navajo Dam Rd. facility for this fiscal year.

The first treatment train to be upgraded was chosen because it could be taken offline during the winter. Work on that train is in progress and will be complete by the end of March, said Mike Huber, city engineer and public works director.

The project approved Tuesday involves replacement of control, power and valve systems that date back to the 1960s. It will begin in the coming weeks and be completed by the end of April.

Upgrades and automation to the plant's disinfection system will begin after that.

"It's like a family remodeling their home while they continue to live in it. We're making these upgrades, one at a time before summer, when peak-demand would make such work difficult," Huber said.

The plant employs ten operators who work 12-hour to 14-hour shifts in summer when demand peaks and 8-hour to 10-hour shifts the rest of the year.

"To understand what the plant looks like inside, picture a 'home' that contains four separate swimming pools," Huber said.

The equipment in the plant is a half-century old, requiring a laborious procedure to open and shut valves and run through other daily routines that other cities have long since digitally automated. The planned replacement of the antiquated equipment will bring the city up to current standards primarily using software-guided operations.

"Much of the upgrade will see the installation of hardware and software to track and report on all the plant equipment, including a new control panel, valves, meters, and cameras," Huber said. "We'll lose a lot of leg work and get a lot more with the same number of trains."

"The city's always looking for efficiencies that best serve its citizens and this project so obviously qualifies," he said.

Essentially the same sequence of steps that demanded the slow, hands-on work of one or more operators will soon be done with a single keystroke.

The entire "design-build" bid, submitted by Pillar Innovations of Farmington the only contractor to bid on the project runs just under $400,000.

Austin Randall, a purchasing agent for the city's finance department, said that despite the lack of competition, he made sure the city was paying a fair price.

"The specialty hybrid bid saves money and time because one contractor does two traditionally separate roles, designing and building," Randall said.

Cost containment is aided by removing the cost of additional engineers. The efficiencies also mean the project can be delivered on time.

Huber hopes to see the final two trains upgraded with funding approximately $500,000 in the next year's budget.

If the final two trains are approved, the combined expense of all four of the trains' upgrades will be approximately $1.4 million, a far cry from the $8 million to $10 million it would take to replace the entire plant.

Before 1951, Aztec residents relied solely on well water.

Today the city takes surface water from the Aztec Ditch, Lower Animas Ditch, and the Animas River. The plant treats the water with filters and chemicals but does not add fluoride. Huber said fluoride occurs naturally at levels just under the recommended amounts set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

"These upgrades get us up to speed with current technology that will ensure clean drinkable water for our citizens well into the future," Huber said.

Huber said it will be a decade or more before further changes may be necessary.

"But the great thing is that upgrading from here will be a lot easier and a lot cheaper," he said.