Water rates poised to rise again

Mar. 01, 2013 @ 06:56 PM

Water and sewer rates in Durham on average will rise by no more than 2.5 percent, according to the budget guidelines City Council members gave administrators on Friday.

The likely rate increase will buttress the Water Management Department’s construction and maintenance program, which clocks in at a proposal $27.5 million in fiscal 2013-14 and is set to balloon to $120.8 million in fiscal 2014-15.

Department Director Don Greeley said the fee increase would continue the city’s policy of having small increases each year instead of hitting residents with a big one in a single year.

The upcoming spike in construction spending “addresses a lot of regulatory projects we have to build,” including one major effort sparked by the anti-pollution mandates the state has established for the Jordan Lake and Falls Lake watersheds, he said.

Durham straddles the two watersheds and its sewage-treatment plants discharge into streams that eventually feed into the regional reservoirs.

Both plants are due for upgrades to help cut back on their emissions of nitrogen and phosphorous, the nutrients the state’s rules have targeted.

The N.C. General Assembly, now under Republican control, appears likely to revisit the Jordan rules this year. But Greeley said his department favors “not really changing much” about them because the lake eventually will be a major source of Durham’s drinking water.

The construction program also includes more routine water- and sewer-line upgrades and plant-repair work and should settle back into the $30 million to $40 million a year range after a couple of years, Greeley said

The next potential spike in heavy construction costs is years away and tied to decisions about adding water from Jordan Lake to Durham’s regular supply, he said.

Were the timing strictly a matter of filling Durham’s own needs, intakes and treatment facilities would likely be built sometime in the mid-2020s, he said.

But because of the Jordan project’s likely cost, city officials want to work with other governments in the area, and “their needs might move that forward a bit,” Greeley said.

Despite the rate increases, Durham water and sewer customers pay on average less than their counterparts in other Triangle communities.

A survey by the Triangle J Council of Governments found that of the area’s major communities, only the residents of Raleigh pay less for 5,000 gallons of water a month than Durham’s.

Cary and Chapel Hill residents pay more, Chapel Hill’s a lot more. There, 5,000 gallons of water costs more than $80. Cary’s bill tops $60. Durham’s runs in the low $50 range.

Durham uses tiered water rates to encourage conservation. They include surcharges for heavy use that hit about 13 percent of the city’s single-family homes.

Greeley said he thinks Raleigh’s rates will spike.

“They’re probably going to slip past us in the next couple of years,” he said, adding that between-city comparisons of rates depend partly on when their utilities execute major capital projects.