Water System Threatened By Low Rates

Commentary
By Jack Gurner

            City officials increased water rates at the end of last year. It was the first time since 2009 that rates had gone up for residential users and the first time since 2005 for industrial users.

            The reason: “To purchase additional chemicals to bring the wastewater discharge into compliance,” Mayor Larry Hart told aldermen. “We still battle with the EPA and our wastewater treatment,” Hart said at the October 2014 board meeting. “They tighten and tighten the specs.”

            “The reason for that tightness is that we ultimately discharge into Otuchalofa and EPA is concerned about ammonia nitrogen going into our water supplies,” the mayor continued.

            So, what is ammonia nitrogen, where does it come from and why do the Environmen-tal Protection Agen-cy and Mississippi Department of En-vironmental Quality worry about it?

            Ammonia nitrogen is a toxic pollutant often found in waste products, such as sewage, liquid manure and other liquid organic waste products. It can directly poison humans and upset the equilibrium of water systems.

            MDEQ sent a notice of violation to city officials in April of 2014 that showed deviations in the ammonia nitrogen from 46 percent more up to over 100 percent more than is allowed. Just a few months earlier, in December of 2013, the deviations were only 10 to 14 percent over the allowed amount.

            Responding to the notice of violation, city officials wrote to MDEQ that an unusual winter with low temperatures for longer than normal periods inhibited bacterial action in the lagoon system.

            And, quoting from the letter, “Our local poultry plant has also placed a heavier than normal burden on our system with increased amounts of ammonia nitrogen. We started noticing an increase in the poultry plant’s ammonia nitrogen in August of 2013 and there have been few weeks since then that their ammonia nitrogen was within permitted limits.”

            The notices of violation and the response from the city are all part of an inspection report issued by MDEQ and obtained by the Herald with a public records request.

            Those of us who are connected to the city’s water system (1651 connections as of May of 2014) are paying an increased rate to purchase the additional chemicals needed to bring our wastewater treatment facility into compliance.

            How does that rate break down? If you are a residential water user in Water Valley you pay a minimum of $10.40 per month for the first 2,000 gallons of water used. After that, you are charged $1.95 for each additional 1,000 gallons used. I used 3,000 gallons one month which was $4.12 per thousand.

            Technically you are not paying for the water. You are paying to have the water pumped to your home. Then you pay $8.82 to have that 2000 gallons taken away by the sewer system. After that the cost of using the city’s sewer system is $1.26 per 1,000 gallons. For my 3,000 gallons, that works out to $3.36 per thousand.

            We won’t quibble over how much doesn’t go through the sewer system because you wash your car or water your lawn. After all, it’s a lot more convenient not to have to dig a well or build an outhouse.

            But, if you are a industrial user, you pay $2,899.78 for the first 3,000,000 gallons (or $.97 per thousand) and then $.63 per thousand after that. Use of the sewer system – including the wastewater treatment facility – costs $2,408.73 for 3,000,000 (or $.80 per thousand) and then $.55 per thousand after that.

            According to figures provided by the poultry plant’s manager in 2008, the facility used more than 9,000,000 gallons in March of that year and more than 11,000,000 in April.

            A water rate study done at that time showed that based on operating expenses it cost the city $.59 per thousand gallons just to bring the water to ground level. The cost rises to $1.36 per thousand gallons to deliver water to the customer.

            When I ran these figures by a state official, they agreed the numbers were probably correct…for the time. But, that was about eight years ago and costs have gone up.

            According to a chart on the Mississippi Rural Water Association website,  a survey of city/town water systems showed that current charges for 3,000 gallons varied from $13 to $23 (or $4.33 to $7.66 per thousand).

            But, the price for industrial users (shown as those using over 10,000 gallons) varied from $2.38 to as high as $5 per thousand.

            The city recently completed a $600,000 sewer rehab project and is about to start on another $600,000 project…maybe. It all depends on if we can get a ARC grant to cover the matching funds needed for a CDBG grant. And, with only $5,000,000 available from MDA statewide this year, it may not happen.

            State and federal officials have stated that grants to rehab infrastructure are quickly disappearing. Cities need to build up their reserves to repair aging  water systems nationwide.

            We no longer can afford to give discounts to those who tax our water system the most and expect the city’s residents to make up the difference.

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