Fencing around Water Plant Stirs Debate in Grand Forks

Who would've thought chain link fencing would cost so much?

The Grand Forks City Council this week approved spending up to $631,250 to put security fences around water treatment facilities over the objection of three council members who wondered just that.

The dissenters said it's too costly and wouldn't do much to deter terrorists from poisoning the city's water supply.

"It's fairly easy to hand grenade your way through," Council member Eliot Glassheim.

Council member Doug Christensen said an SUV could easily barrel through chain link and Council member Bob Brooks said it costs too much for a city as small as Grand Forks.

Even Mayor Mike Brown wondered Tuesday if he shouldn't veto the whole thing, which was suggested by his own public works director. He said Wednesday he now thinks the fence worthwhile.

It's a rare thing for council members to object to improving the city's security, especially when the federal government is footing 55 percent of the bill. It's even rarer for them to argue against a project that came in under estimate. Some months ago, council members had agreed to bid out the project in a closed-door session knowing it could cost up to $700,000.

Here's a closer look at that fence and why it costs so much.

About half the cost of the project is for a fence around just one facility, the raw water intake south of downtown. The fence costs more because it has esthetic features to blend in with the neighborhood, according to public works director Todd Feland.

Brown said the dike system is the same way with pump stations disguised as houses and molds that turn concrete walls into faux-brick walls. "It's a logical extension of the philosophy we already have."

Besides that, the fence isn't exactly ordinary chain link, according to Council member Curt Kreun, who voted for the project. The fence posts have stronger foundations, he said, and the fence probably would tangle up an SUV rather than break.

So what's the point of a fence that any 12-year-old could scale, never mind a trained Al-Qaida agent?

Well, what's the point of fencing around the airport or Grand Forks Air Force Base? Feland asked. The fence would only be the first layer in a multi-layered security system, serving to slow down an adversary, he said.

Two other layers are planned as part of the security upgrade, requiring council approval in the near future.

Layer 2 is a system of access controls, requiring an electronic identity card to open the front door or to reach critical components. The cost is estimated at $407,788.

Layer 3 is a new wi-fi, or wireless intranet, network that would also be suitable for police use.

Right now, if public works staff members needed a map to locate, say, a shut off valve, their only choice is to drive back to the office. If police officers needed more than just basic driver's license information, they'd have to do the same. A wi-fi network means what's in the office is on the laptop. Estimated cost is $282,700.

But one of the most important layers of protection is already in place, according to Feland. Those would be the water quality sensors inside pipes. It's a little known fact that contaminating the water system could be as simple as a powerful pump and a water faucet. A visit to a water facility is probably unnecessary.