The increase pays for the $37 million Water System Improvement Project.
City of Elkins water customers will see sizable rate increases in their bills due December 19. Here’s why: The city is commencing debt service on the $37 million package of loans and bonds that funded the new water-treatment plant, pumping station, reservoir, and other critical improvements to the Elkins water system. The new water-treatment plant is anticipated to go into service in December.
[Related: 2017 Water Rate Increase FAQ]
The New Rates
This rate increase is the second of two approved by Elkins Common Council in 2015. The first increase, which went into effect in 2015, covered the increased cost of ongoing operations. The increase that will be seen on bills due December 19 covers the cost of the Elkins Water System Improvement Project and was a loan condition imposed by the project’s funders, according to Bob Pingley, the operations manager for the City of Elkins.
“Just like individuals applying for mortgages have to prove they have the income to make repayment, we had to commit to raising our water rates enough to cover our monthly payments before we could access project funds,” Pingley says, going on to explain that the sole purpose of this increase is to cover the almost $116,000 monthly payments that the city will have to make until 2055. West Virginia law requires that municipal water utilities be run like independent businesses, with no income other than customer payments.
Under the new rates, the cost for customers’ first 2,000 gallons will rise from $10 to $15.25 per 1,000 gallons, a 52.5 percent increase, and the cost for customers’ next 3,000 gallons will rise from $5.49 to $8.50 per 1,000 gallons, a 54.83 percent increase. The full text of the water-rate ordinance, including other rate changes, may be reviewed online here.
Just in Time
The city’s new water plant marks a big step forward from the old plant, which has been in service since 1921. “The people who built our old plant almost a century ago did great work,” says Pingley. “But everything has a lifespan, and the old plant has gotten to a point where we can’t prudently rely on it much longer.”
One of the most crucial capabilities of the new water-treatment plant is that it is equipped with backup generators, which the old plant has always lacked because of the nonstandard design of its 1920s-era electrical system. Lack of backup power isn’t a problem when power outages are brief, but there have been times in the city’s recent history when longer power outages have come close to draining city reservoirs, such as during Hurricane Sandy.
“During the Hurricane Sandy power outage, we got to within about 5 hours of running our reservoir dry,” says Pingley, who points out that—although Elkins can supply backup water to neighboring utilities if their plants break down—no neighboring utility can generate enough water to supply both its own customers and Elkins. “Until the new plant comes on line, if a power outage lasts long enough, Elkins could simply run out of water.”
The effects of losing city water range from inconvenient to grim to terrifying. Conditions in homes would quickly become unsanitary; schools and businesses would close; hospitals and other care facilities would have to limit services and evacuate patients; and dry hydrants and sprinkler systems would make it difficult or impossible to fight fires.
“Everyone at the City of Elkins is going to heave a huge sigh of relief once we shift to the new plant,” says Pingley.
A New Plant for a New Century
The new plant can produce 4,000 gallons of clean drinking water per minute, compared to the old plant’s 3,800. The new plant also provides a positive barrier against waterborne viruses by using filtration membranes, which are replaceable and so can be upgraded as filtration technology advances. A new 3-million-gallon, pre-stressed-concrete reservoir tank, which replaces the welded-steel Crystal Springs and McQuain Road tanks, has also been constructed next to the new plant atop Reservoir Hill in the city’s Wees District.
Because of the hilltop location of both the new plant and the new reservoir, the city’s water distribution system will be entirely gravity-fed for the first time, which Pingley says offers additional customer benefits.
“A gravity-fed distribution system eliminates fluctuations in water pressure, makes the system less vulnerable to shocks from power surges and restarting the pump after power outages, and simplifies flushing lines,” says Pingley. “That should translate to fewer water-main breaks and other service disruptions, less sediment at the tap, and decreased stress on appliances and fixtures.”
More Than Just a New Water Plant
Pingley emphasizes that this isn’t a “water-plant project,” it’s a “water-system improvement project.” In other words, that $37 million price tag is buying Elkins a lot more than a twenty-first-century, state-of-the-art water plant and a new, highly durable reservoir tank. Other water-system improvements include the installation of 43,540 feet of new water lines; the removal of many old, deteriorated sections of pipe; 41 new fire hydrants; and a new pumping station with backup generators and new intakes and raw-water pumps.
“I know no one is happy about this big jump in water rates, but I want everyone to understand how much value we are getting for the money,” says Pingley, who explains that the city’s new water rates are similar to those charged by other West Virginia cities that have also recently completed large water infrastructure projects. “After this project, Elkins will have a much more robust, redundant, reliable water system, which I know everyone wants—not just for ourselves, today, but also for the future generations who will live and work in Elkins. These new rates are simply what it costs to achieve that.”
It’s not your imagination: we have had a real spike in water main breaks and leaks recently. But don’t worry, the end of the world is not near! According to Operations Manager Bob Pingley, these events don’t signal a general collapse of our water infrastructure. There’s a simpler explanation.
“It’s actually because we had to close the line filling the Crystal Springs reservoir tank,” Pingley said at last night’s council meeting, referring to one of the city’s two reservoir tanks (the other one is on top of “reservoir hill,” above High Street). He explained that the city’s Water Plant pumps water out through the city’s piping system at a certain pressure. When everything is functioning normally, the water flows out through the lines and eventually fills up the tanks at each end of the city. The main function of those tanks, of course, is to store fresh water, but a byproduct of the action of filling them up is that each tank provides a sort of ‘relief valve’ for pressure throughout the system of pipes that serves the city. For an admittedly inexact analogy, think of the expansion tank on a water heater: a place for water to keep flowing into so that it doesn’t raise the pressure of the system it’s coming from.
But as water customers along Harrison Avenue and in Crystal Springs know, everything hasn’t been functioning normally. At least not since October 13, when we suffered a break to a 24-inch water main in that area. Although crews were able to implement a temporary solution that restored water service, that solution left the line to the Crystal Springs tank closed. Without the “relief” of that tank, the water pressure throughout the system was substantially raised.
Now, as you may know, we have a lot of old pipes out there, some almost 100 years old. Many of these already had hairline fractures and even small leaks. Not surprisingly, when the pressure goes up for any reason, those hairline fractures start turning into small leaks, those small leaks start turning into larger leaks, and the larger leaks–well, just ask the customers along Harrison or in South Elkins this week.
The good news is that the line to the Crystal Springs tank is back open as of today. We hope it can stay open, although we should all be ready for some continued “aftershocks” of the experience we’ve just been through. As you can imagine, that raised pressure might have created some really weak spots that are just waiting for some other factor to put them over the edge. Rest assured that, if that happens, our hardworking water crews will get things fixed just as fast as they can. Thanks for your understanding and patience, and check out these resources to learn more about the city’s water system and plans to improve it:
Water will be off on Easy Street effective immediately; Cole Avenue and some of 13th Street will be affected. The City of Elkins Water Distribution department is repairing a water leak.
The City Of Elkins Water Distribution Dept. employees are working on a hydrant at 1st Street & Railroad Ave. which has caused some discolored water in the area of downtown 3rd Street to 1st St., including Henry Ave., and 2nd Street. They are currently flushing hydrants.
15th Street, from S. Davis Ave. to Taylor Ave., will be closed through early afternoon today, Wednesday, June 5th. The City of Elkins Water Department is repairing a water leak.
Water will be off in the 1700 block of Livingston Avenue today, Thursday, May 23, beginning immediately and lasting through mid-afternoon.
Livingston Ave (from Ward Ave to South Gate Rd) will be closed through around 1 p.m. today, Wednesday, May 22. The Water Distribution Department is installing a water valve and Mountaineer Gas Company is closing a gas line.
Water will be off on the 1700 block of Livingston Ave through around 1 p.m. today.
Water will be off in the Crystal Springs area today as we repair a water line on Harrison Avenue.
Water will be off throughout the community of Crystal Springs beginning mid-morning and lasting through mid-afternoon on Wednesday, April 10th. The COE Water Distribution Department is installing a new water valve.
The water department is replacing a valve on John Street, which will be closed from Third Street to the federal building’s parking entrance. Water will be off until 12:00 p.m., as follows:
- On Randolph Ave. from Park St. to Henry Ave.
- On Third St. from Henry Ave. to Randolph Ave.
- On Second St. from Henry Ave. To John St.
- On John St. from Henry Ave to Third St.