IW task force discusses rising cost of water

Published 10:40 am Wednesday, April 19, 2017

According to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency formula, the average household in Isle of Wight County would need to bring in approximately $68,000 per year  in order to comply with an EPA regulation that mandates the cost of a municipal water service not exceed 4.5 percent of a locality’s median household income, factoring in the county’s current water and sewer rates. That was how Don Jennings, the county’s director of utility services, opened up his presentation to the county’s intergovernmental water-sewer task force on a potentially looming water affordability crisis during the task force’s April meeting. He then estimated that the average household income in the county is currently around $66,000.

That said, the formula the EPA recommends municipalities use to calculate their water-sewer affordability threshold specifies a usage of 400 gallons per day per customer, which Jennings said was roughly twice what county residents actually use, so the county isn’t in crisis mode… yet. Task force chairman Dick Grice said that though the county’s water rates have been rising since 2009, based on actual water and sewer usage, the county’s rates should remain within that 4.5 percent threshold well into the future.

“We’re not abnormal,” Grice said. “This is happening all across the country and there are people out there at a much higher risk of having their water rates exceed the appropriate amount of their income in terms of utilities.”

However, staying within the EPA’s threshold is not the only potential issue the county will face in the years to come. Also of concern is the county’s current debt in its water and sewer fund and the possibility of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality reducing either of the county’s two towns’ groundwater withdrawal permits as part of its statewide effort to protect aquifers from becoming depleted.

Jennings said that currently, the county subsidizes its water and sewer fund with between $4 million and $6 million annually from the county’s general fund to compensate for when the water and sewer fund’s expenses exceed its total collected water rates. The towns of Windsor and Smithfield have water fund debts of roughly $1 million and $2 million respectively.

Grice added that the main reason for this disparity in debt was that the county had to provide water and sewer infrastructure over a much larger geographic area.

“They have a lot less debt in Windsor in relation to water production than the county does,” Grice said. “That’s because their water systems are central to their locality and the county is a pretty big place, so as a consequence, we share with Suffolk, through the [Western Tidewater Water] Authority, part of the cost when they do projects on the Suffolk side that are directly related to servicing our side. We pay 25 percent.”

One of the options some members of the task force suggested bringing to the county and town governments was for the county to renegotiate its contract with the WTWA, but Grice did not feel that that was a particularly likely solution.

“Let’s say we withdraw from the water authority; where are all the people in Carrollton going to get their water?” Grice asked. “The towns can’t provide water to those people. What happens three to four years down the road when [the DEQ] cuts the well water permits for Smithfield and Windsor? The only water we have that’s surface comes through the water authority. Can the language of the contract be changed? Perhaps, but it hasn’t been on the front burner.”

Another option the task force is considering recommending is the possibility of the two towns connecting their water assets and infrastructure with the county’s systems.

Grice gave the example that currently, if the county were to put a new water line going parallel to Route 460 toward Windsor, without having the town on board to connect that line to its infrastructure, the water line would not have a sufficient customer base to create enough flow to keep the system working.

As a result, the county would have to pump about 200,000 gallons per day out of the line and into its sewer system to keep the line functional.

“On the flip side, if we don’t put the infrastructure in and Windsor ends up losing half their permitted water, where are they going to get it?” Grice asked.

“If I was with Smithfield, I would much rather be in a position to work with the county now so I knew I had a water supply, than to come to them five to six years down the road and beg them for water; you don’t have any kind of position at all when you’re desperate,” Grice added.

The task force plans to come up with a final list of options to present to the county’s Board of Supervisors and the two town councils by the conclusion of their next meeting on Wednesday, May 10 at 3 p.m. in the Isle of Wight Volunteer Rescue Squad building in Smithfield.