A $9.5 million face-lift at the Metropolitan Utilities District’s massive Florence Water Treatment Plant a few miles north of downtown is restoring the nearly 130-year-old plant’s pumping facility to reflect what little is left of its former grandeur.
Among the most dramatic changes: The building’s original arched window openings, filled with brick and covered up in the last round of updates in the 1960s, have been re-opened for the first time in decades. The last updates that obscured many of its early features, including the radial stone arches atop the original windows, have given way to an overhaul that MUD officials say restores as much of the pump station’s original features as are left.
Where the last project left two tall, narrow window shades on the building’s east side facing John J. Pershing Drive, contractors brought back the five originals. On the front of the building, seven narrow apertures have given way to 12 originals.
Before and after: Minne Lusa Pump Station
“We are going to preserve that original architecture and take the opportunity to bring in more borrowed (natural) light,” said Mike Koenig, MUD’s director of water production and pumping. “Some of the original stonework from the 1880s hadn’t been seen since the 1960s.”
Contractors since January have been working to complete cosmetic renovations that include stripping 50-year-old stucco finish from the building’s interior and exterior walls. Other work for reliability purposes has included tearing out and replacing electrical wiring and controls that in some cases haven’t been updated since the 1940s and 1950s, and MUD directors in September authorized the purchase of a $450,000 pump to replace one that had been in operation there since the 1930s.
The edifice is the veritable powerhouse for MUD’s largest and oldest of three water treatment facilities that supply water to nearly 212,000 customers across the Omaha area.
In short, water pumped directly from the Missouri River — MUD’s Platte West and Platte South plants are fed by groundwater — is first transported via underground pipes to the plant’s headworks at the south end of the sprawling facility, where it rests in basins that allow sediment to settle out. After that, water is fed into primary treatment basins for softening and further clarification. It then continues through the treatment process, which includes physical filtration and chemical disinfection.
By the time that water meets the massive pump equipment inside of the Minne Lusa building, it’s ready to be sent to customers’ taps, spigots and water fountains.
On a recent 97-degree day that had the plant ramped up to churn out about 50 million gallons of water per day, Koenig said it takes about 24 hours for water to make its way from the river and through the treatment process. On cooler days when demand is less, that time frame extends to about 48 hours.
The current phase of upgrades is the third of five comprising a $150 million, 20-year capital improvement plan MUD directors approved in 2010. Phase III upgrades will cost about $39.5 million. In 2017 dollars, the approximate value of the overall plan is $175 million.
Proceeds from a $41 million bond issue in late 2015 are bankrolling the current phase of improvements; MUD officials say they anticipate those funds will be exhausted by mid-2019, at which time another series of bonds will be issued.
Mineral deposits streaking the rough-hewn limestone slabs undergirding the Minne Lusa Pump Station — the structure is named for the neighborhood in which it was built in 1889 — betray its age, but the facility’s foundation remains solid. That wasn’t so certain as recently as early 2010, when the gas and water utility’s board and management ordered a study to determine if it even had a future.
“Our engineering study answered the question of whether there is value here or is it time to start over,” said MUD President Scott Keep. “We found that there is tremendous value here.”
As one might imagine when dealing with such a makeover, Koenig says the project hasn’t been without its surprises.
“There was lead paint everywhere,” said Koenig, MUD’s director of water production and pumping. “But we also found that the old brick had been covered with stucco in the 1960s, so we were able to preserve it and made wine out of smashed grapes.”
To date, MUD has already spent about $55 million on improvements preceding the current phase. Those have included updates to electrical systems across the site and a $14 million renovation of the filtration plant at the north end of the facility that was built in phases in the 1920s, 1930s and 1950s.
The pump station currently surrounded by scaffolding was the crown jewel of the plant, which was originally built by the American Water Works Co. of Chicago.
According to MUD archives, the Florence facility was the city’s second behind the first at Burt Street, north of downtown, which began operations in August 1881.
Rylee Hall, community engagement coordinator at the Douglas County Historical Society, said his organization’s archives on the Florence plant indicate that more than 500 guests took a train from Omaha to inaugurate the facility in August 1889.
“I don’t know if the celebration was just about this technological wonder of the pumping station ... but they did a lot of pomp and circumstance for its opening,” Hall said.
The celebrations didn’t stop there, either. The historical society’s archives contain an oral history describing frequent parties — replete with two orchestras playing for revelers — at the “large and airy and immaculately clean” Minne Lusa Pump Station hosted by Capt. B. Frank Reynolds, the American Water Co.’s chief engineer.
The facility’s incipient grandeur featured a trio of wooden turrets that jutted skyward out of the rolling riverside landscape. Those turrets eventually succumbed to damage by termites, and the splendor of the pump station was largely eradicated by the time the 1960s renovations were through.
Made of limestone quarried from west-central Missouri and bedecked in red oak, the Florence facility as described in an April 1889 preview in The World-Herald boasted that “the citizens of Omaha will be astonishing their interior furnishings with the best water from the most perfect water works system between Chicago and the Rocky Mountains.”
“When the big works are completed and a merry throng of Omaha’s best citizens are gathered there to celebrate the event,” The World-Herald continued, “let the first toast be, ‘The American Water Company, may they never go into, but always remain in liquidation.’ ”