Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Water Water Anywhere?

Water has been in the news a lot lately. First there is some disappointing news from the test wells just west of here. The results show they were getting too much sand from the wells at that location, which makes it unsuitable for a well field. It is likely that drilling in another location will solve this, but we won't know until the next test well is drilled. It would be a shame if we can't get to the water because of the sand.

The next big news about the water is the rate increase. It may not seem like it, but a heck of a lot of work was done to keep the rates down. They have been working on this for over a year. This has been a balancing act of 3 competing objectives.

The First objective was to keep the water and sewer departments finances transparent and independent of the rest of the city finances. Up until a few years ago, a significant part of the water departments revenues were moved into the general fund, even when the water department was loosing money. After the previous rate increase, the council finally took steps to eliminate that transfer, and make the water department effectively a stand alone, revenue neutral department. There are some areas, like the lake and park police, that need to be looked at, but the water department is not being drained by the rest of the city government. The decisions they made much earlier on the water fund reduced the rate increase that would have been needed otherwise.

The next objective was to have a safe, dependable, well functioning water system. Almost a year ago a fire destroyed the Honeycreek Apartments. What should have been a relatively easy to contain fire got out of hand for two critical reasons. First, the nearest hydrant to the apartments was broken. It had a tag on it indicating that it had been awaiting repair for a while. When they found a working hydrant, the pressure was too low to adequately fight the fire. The water department didn't try to raise the pressure for fear of busting a main. Soon after the Honeycreek fire, the city council instructed the city manager and staff to come up with a plan to correct the current problems and a long range plan to prevent a recurrence. As part of a two day workshop the initial results were presented and these became the foundations of what is now the capital improvement plan. They were starting to implement this when the 27 inch main broke just before Christmas. The situation was very bad, but it would have been worse if the planning hadn't been started in the summer. The council and city government were late in getting started, but at least they had started. We now have a clearer long range plan for fixing and maintaining our cities infrastructure.

The last objective is to keep the rates fair to all rate payers, keep the rates affordable, and to not have a regressive rate that hurts the poorest water customers. The final rate for the lowest water user is about half what was initially proposed. First, they when to a tiered or stratified rate structure where the larger water meters, and thus the largest water users, paid a proportionately larger increase than the smaller water users did. They looked at financing and repayment options by the hundreds, looked for savings, and eventually came up with a plan that traded a little initial pain for a faster solution, and a plan where our grandkids won't still be paying high interest payments.

There is still a lot that needs to be done and is being done for the long term health of our water system. We are eventually going to have to start using underground water and build a pipeline and plant as part of that water source. We must get better at addressing maintenance issues. We do need to build in money saving technologies such as remote reading water meters. Water, like all of our infrastructure, is an ongoing project. The city government has it's work cut out, and we need to keep watching to make sure they do it.


  1. Had I had anything to do with the December water debacle, it would have been; TURN THE VALVE, to make sure it worked, before digging up the downstream pipeline. In gas piping repair, this is normative, just to assure if the FUBAR happens, it can be isolated.

    It turned out we had an ancient 27 inch pipe held together only by roughly equal tons of dirt pressing against cheesy cast iron with internal pressure sufficient to prevent an overdue collapse. Without a workable valve, once the pipe blew, there was nothing to prevent a tank full of treated water from going downstream.

    Spilt milk and all that comes to mind. At least it got everyone's attention. As best as I can read, the plans to prevent a similar misfortune are well prioritized. The rate increase is unfortunately high, but a lot of Americans pay higher water rates. If I had a better idea, I would be telling you about it now, but frankly, the best I could do is tinker around the edges.

    The tendency, as with all things governmental, is to blame whoever sits the hotseat now, but sometimes "credit" should be given that blame actually lies with City Managers or Councilmen no longer there. JWT was absolutely right on one point; at least we are not passing on to our grandkids the cost of our own lack of oversight.

    I do agree with the basic concept. Keep the water/sewer fee separate from general fund. If nothing else it makes it plainer which dept. of the city to call and unload on.

  2. I have often wondered why we need city police, city marshalls, and park\lake police all for the same city. Seems to me that they should be combined in some way to save funds?

  3. Not on the H2O topic.... I wonder why we as tax payers pay for fuel and vehicle wear & tear for ALL of the police officers working security at Grahams and other bars in town. We have to drive our own cars to both our full time and part time jobs. I'd love to see this problem solved...gas is too high for me to be paying their way to off duty jobs!