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Pratt water problems reflect national infrastructure needs

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.

Many systems, such as Pratt, have deferred needed maintenance in the past, and the cost to fix problems that began appearing years ago is now much higher than it would have been if the issues were addressed immediately, he said.

When asked what he thought could be done about the deteriorating water/sewage infrastructure, the longtime politician said the federal and state governments would have to cough up more money to fund the fixes.

"It's just going to have to happen," he said

Water and sewer rates may also have to increase to address eroding infrastructure.

"I'm not a big fan of rate increases," he said. "But you have to maintain infrastructure."

Hardy also believes a combination of federal/state dollars along with some rate hikes will be necessary to address the failing systems.

"Cost for maintenance increases every year," Hardy said. "If the rates aren't intelligently adjusted, then the systems will fall behind."

Smaller systems aren't the only ones in need of an upgrade. West Virginia American Water's pipes under streets in Charleston are also aging and many tend to rupture, especially in the winter when the ground freezes and thaws, said Gary Taylor, director of Charleston's Public Works Department.

"We deal with water line breaks just about every day," Taylor said.

Changing times

In previous years, water companies looking to upgrade systems or expand into new areas relied on grant funds from federal and state agencies, said Gary Facemyer, a senior project manager for the engineering firm Hatch Mott MacDonald.

"But those monies are no longer available," he said. "Renewal and replacement has really slowed down over the last few years."

Facemyer has been in the business for about 35 years. He is also president of the American Council of Engineering Companies of West Virginia.

The country's eroding water infrastructure was a topic of conversation by organization members last Thursday.

A couple of things need to change in order to address the crumbling water/sewage systems in the nation. One is the attitude toward rate hikes, Facemyer said.

"Keeping rates down to the point there isn't enough money to do maintenance has to change," he said. "And I think the state's PSC (Public Service Commission) needs to recognize that."

The PSC has to approve rate hikes by utility companies before they can go into effect.

Facemyer believes the agency has been loath to approve rate hikes because the state's politicians are unwilling to pass on increases of any kind to residents.

Although the federal and state dollars typically used to upgrade systems has decreased due to a slow economy, Facemyer believes more grant funds will become available in the future.

"I think the grant money will come back," he said.

Jim Ellars, executive director of the West Virginia Infrastructure Jobs Development Council, believes the solution to the problem depends on the specific water/sewage system.

The council must approve all infrastructure projects that have received state funding.

"If I would have to try to generalize about a solution, I would say that utilities that have deteriorating infrastructure need to have the rates in place to operate those facilities and replace things as needed," Ellars said.

Increasing rates is an answer for smaller, publicly owned utilities, like those owned by cities and towns, he said. But other, larger companies have the ability to absorb the maintenance costs because they receive much more money from current rates, Ellars said.

"The utilities that really suffer are the smaller ones," he said.

This is not news to Fields.

"It's really difficult for us to keep up any kind of maintenance plan," he said. "It'll be a blessing when West Virginia American Water takes us over."  

Contact writer Paul Fallon at paul.fallon@dailymail.com or 304-348-4817. Follow him at www.twitter.com/PaulBFallon.

 


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