Water and sewer costs to rise again

May. 08, 2014 @ 08:24 PM

Water and sewer charges for city residents will rise by an average of about 3 percent in fiscal 2014-15, assuming the City Council approves the latest rate request from the Water Management Department.

The proposal sets the monthly base rate for access to the two services at $13.62, up from the present $13.17.

Customers also pay for every 100 cubic feet of water they use, at a “tiered” rate that rewards those who use less. Most fall in tier 3, and when everything is said and done will be paying the city about $1.53 more a month.

Water Management Director Don Greeley said the department is in the midst of a construction boom that will see spending for major treatment plant upgrades and other maintenance rise sharply in the next couple years.

It’ll taper off again by fiscal 2018-19, but in the meantime, “almost a quarter billion in real dollars will be rolling out into the system,” Greeley said.

He noted that the department is close to finishing a roughly $25 million project to convert residential water meters to automated, radio-read models.

Engineers also are making progress on a long-term effort to clean and inspect the city’s sewer lines, an initiative that among other things made it clear they needed to replace a pump station in western Durham at a price that could reach close to $5 million.

But most of the money is going into the city’s four major treatment plants, two of which produce its drinking water and the other two of which handle its waste.

There, regulatory requirements, including new anti-pollution mandates for the Falls Lake watershed, are forcing the city’s hand.

The city is under orders to cut emissions of nitrogen and phosphorous, nutrients that feed the growth of algae that in turn can crowd out other forms of aquatic life in the lake.

Council members have chafed at the rules, deeming them unreasonable and mainly for the benefit of Raleigh, a rival city that lies downstream and depends on Falls for its drinking water.

Greeley’s briefing prompted more complaints on that front, mainly from Councilman Eugene Brown, who said he hopes the department bears in mind the possibility the state will relax the rules and thus the need for some of the treatment-plant upgrades.

“All of us at this table have environmental concerns, but we have budget concerns as well,” Brown said. “I would hate to see us go out on an environmental limb and make changes at these sites that may not be necessary.”

Brown was alluding most clearly to the possibility, built in to the rules for the Falls watershed, that state regulators will reassess the feasibility of a second stage of pollution reductions.

But the current N.C. General Assembly, dominated in both chambers by lopsided Republican majorities, is decidedly unfriendly to environmental rules of any sort and has delayed the implementation of similar regulations in the Jordan Lake watershed.

The anti-pollution mandates are also contributing to rate increases proposed for the city’s stormwater utility, which handles jobs like street cleaning and the management of drainage basins.

For that, rates charged for the amount of hard, “impervious” surface on a property are also likely on their way up, by about 7.5 percent. Most homeowners will see their annual costs rise by $2.76 or $5.64.

Council members signaled they are likely to OK both rate packages on May 19.