Aging Infrastructure Might Be Raising Water Bills

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Repairs and water treatment improvements affect affordability, which is why utilities aim to innovate.

WASHINGTON — A Maryland water utility hasn’t had a single water quality violation in its 101-year history, but for the first time aging infrastructure and employees are threatening the utility’s triple-A bond rating, CEO Carla Reid said Monday.

A third of Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission pipes are more than 30 years old, so the utility tries to replace several miles a year, Reid said at the National League of Cities congressional conference.

But whether a utility is improving its infrastructure or its water treatment process with this kind of work, water bill affordability is affected.

“It all comes back to the ratepayer and what they have to pay,” said David Lawny, president of the American Public Works Association.

WSSC defines affordability as a customer’s ability to pay his or her water bill in full on time, and “rate increase fatigue” has become a problem, Reid said. The utility is currently holding community meetings to explain a proposed 5 percent rate increase, the vast majority of which is for debt service.

Alternative revenue sources are needed, which is why the utility is partnering with universities and the Water Research Foundation on cost-saving innovations, Reid said.

In President Trump budget proposal on Monday, the administration has included a $300-million investment that would be targeted at two “innovative” approaches to water infrastructure, providing localities more control over Army Corps of Engineers projects and promoting public-private partnerships, according to a fact sheet. Democrats have called for a much bigger water infrastructure investment, but a measure introduced last month is unlikely to get much Republican support.

Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said that in Jackson, Mississippi, the challenge is investing in utilities in a city that has struggled with population declines. The city previously made a “misstep” of investing $90 million—an amount he called an overpayment—for a new water metering and billing system.  

“Poorer and poorer populations are still tasked with managing the water system,” Lumumba said. “People didn’t take the water pipes with them when they left.”

Aging infrastructure is affecting water quality, and changing water treatment procedures has come at “significant expense” to the ratepayer, he added.

Lumumba said Jackson paid three to four times the amount a city twice its size should pay on new systems that didn’t work in concert with each other and employees lacked the training to handle. In all the confusion, some residents have gone as few as two and as much as 10 years without receiving a water bill, while others ignored them.

Now under a federal consent decree, Jackson has had to raise water bill rates to cover gaps in its enterprise fund and enforce water cutoffs—putting financial strain on some.

The city is considering moving to a regionalized system, but “that creates great concern in Jackson among our population about who controls that,” Lumumba said.

Government consolidation and purchasing agreements are two options metro areas can consider, said Scott Berry, director of policy and government affairs at the United States Water Alliance.

Local governments also need to do a better job showing how utilities are saving ratepayers money through new technologies like water fixtures that use less water and leak detection, Lawny said. Water use has been reduced by 10 percent in the U.S. at no extra cost to customers.

Utilities also need to keep an eye on their workforces, officials said. In Maryland, more than 50 percent of WSSC’s employees are eligible to retire in the next five years, so the utility identified its 50 most critical positions with hard-to-find low skill sets, Reid said. Succession plan were established for each.

“Every position will eventually have its own training plan,” she added.

Dave Nyczepir is a News Editor at Route Fifty and based in Washington, D.C.

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