CHARLESTON, W.Va. - A recent study by the American Society of Civil Engineers finds that water and sewage systems around the country will lack billons of dollars for upgrades and maintenance by the year 2020.
That news doesn't surprise Kanawha County officials.
The study finds that total needs for water and sewage systems around the country will reach $126 billion. However, the expected funding available will only total about $42 billion.
Kanawha County Commissioner Dave Hardy stressed that not only will there be a significant shortfall in funding needed to upgrade and maintain systems in seven years, but the problem also is occurring now, right before his eyes.
"The ongoing problems with the Pratt water system is a perfect example of what's happening everywhere," he said.
"And this isn't a problem that is unique to Pratt; it's a national problem," he added. "But the situation in Pratt is a glaring example of what happens when these systems aren't maintained."
The Pratt Water Works, which is owned by the city, has had numerous problems over the past several months.
Kanawha-Charleston Health Department officials discovered haloacetic acids that were above the maximum allowed by the federal Environmental Protection Agency last June.
Recently, Pratt Mayor Gary Fields had to ask more than 400 customers to conserve water because a pump could not keep the town's water tank full. Field's request to conserve water, which was issued Wednesday, was still in effect as of Friday afternoon.
The pump used to pull water through the intake pipe in the Kanawha River is not working, Fields said. The town is now using a smaller pump on loan from West Virginia American Water but it's too small to keep up with demand.
"It's a mess," he said.
Water and sewage systems around the country, state and county are starting to age, Hardy said. Maintenance bills continue to climb.
The Pratt water system was completed in 1978, and the town's sewage system was finished in 1989, Fields said.
A barge damaged the intake pipe used to pull water from the river into the plant several years ago and the town does not have the funds to fix it. Now, when the river level rises, debris is sucked into the intake.
"The intake should have been fixed a long time ago, but it never was," Fields said.
The river level caused Fields to issue a boil water advisory for Pratt's customers on Jan. 18.
The water system's budget for the current fiscal year is about $282,000, according to figures provided by Fields. They show that the town has budgeted about $38,000 for maintenance during the current fiscal year.
That means the maintenance line item is about 13 percent of the water system's budget.
"The amount of money we spend on maintenance doesn't even come close to covering what we need to do," he said.
The financial burden has become so great the town is hoping West Virginia American Water will buy the system, Fields said. The issue should be placed on a ballot during a special election within the year, Hardy said.
The water company is still looking at taking over the town's system and has not reached a decision on what kind of offer will be made, spokeswoman Laura Jordan said.
"We're working toward internal approval for the takeover and we hope to have that in the next couple of weeks," she said.
If the takeover occurs, the water company will eventually shut down the Pratt water plant and pump water into the area from other systems.
"That's not something that can happen overnight," she said.
Officials with West Virginia American Water's parent company, American Water, are keenly aware of the recent study and the problems facing the nation's water systems.
The company is looking at its infrastructure needs on a state-by-state basis, Jordan said. The company projects it will spend $800 million to $1 billion nationwide on water system upgrades by the end of 2013.
When asked if rates would need to be raised to address the funding gap between needs and available money, Jordan said officials would have to look at the specific needs on a system-by-system basis.
However, the company requested a 19.7 percent water rate hike for its West Virginia customers in early December.
Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper acknowledges that there hasn't been enough money invested in upgrades to water and sewage systems in recent years, and problems are starting to rear their heads as a result.