People in a growing area of York County have been complaining for years about water bills. But here’s a water bill they may want delivered.
State Sen. Wes Climer plans to introduce two pieces of water utility legislation in December. Both bills stem from issues in the Lake Wylie area with provider Blue Granite Water Service.
“I think they’d be beneficial to other parts of the state, but those pieces of legislation are informed by the experience of the people around Lake Wylie who have endured absurd amounts of hardship simply because the water utility failed to plan adequately,” Climer said.
One bill would require water utilities to follow the same planning process as electric utilities. They’d have to file capital improvement and system maintenance plans with state regulators.
A second bill would eliminate return on equity, or profits, for water utilities. Climer aims to prevent issues where poor planning costs residents and other water customers.
“In cases like we experienced in York County this year where there wasn’t an act of God, there wasn’t a system failure,” he said. “It was just poor planning led to people not being able to have water.”
In May, Blue Granite announced Lake Wylie customers needed to cut back on water use amid surging demand. The company put a mandatory ban on certain outdoor water uses that ran through Oct. 7. The water ban lifted when Blue Granite connected to a Charlotte Water line for backup service. Blue Granite gets most of its water from York County, which gets it from Rock Hill.
Also earlier this month, Blue Granite filed with S.C. Public Service Commission to raise water and sewer rates. Rate changes vary by area and service, but some top 50%.
Climer and U.S. Rep. Ralph Norman have been vocal critics of Blue Granite, formerly Carolina Water Service. Both have hosted public meetings and testified in rate cases. Both cite numerous resident complaints about the price of water in Lake Wylie and claims of discoloration or other quality issues.
“Without water, you can’t live,” Norman said. “These people are suffering, and they’ve suffered long enough. The increases and what they’re doing to these people is flat out highway robbery. It’s not right.”
The utility disagrees with any notion it isn’t working to improve infrastructure in Lake Wylie and across its system. Blue Granite lists 29 infrastructure improvements statewide undertaken since the last rate increase, so they aren’t reflected in current rates.
Four are specific to the Lake Wylie system, another to York County, another to Foxwood in the Fort Mill area and others across the system as a whole.
Catherine Heigel is a former director of the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control. Now she is COO of Corix Regulated Utilities, parent company of Blue Granite. Heigel said she appreciates Climer’s proposal to formalize utility infrastructure planning.
“Blue Granite Water Company currently plans for capital investment and infrastructure rehabilitation on a five-year basis,” Heigel said. “Our planning process includes monitoring and inspections of our facilities across the state, along with system growth planning.”
Lake Wylie improvements since the last rate increase, according to the utility, include a more than $2 million water meter exchange, $803,000 for construction to connect to Charlotte Water, almost $133,000 to engineer that same project and more than $71,000 in lift station upgrades.
“We welcome an integrated resource planning process at the state level that would facilitate greater collaboration between our company, our external stakeholders and regulators to help promote transparency and ensure reliable service for customers,” Heigel said.
Climer and Norman met Oct. 11 in Rock Hill with current DHEC director Rick Toomey and two other department directors. Myra Reece, environmental affairs administration director, said there are no major water quality red flags with Blue Granite.
“Their compliance history, actually for this plant, looks really good,” she said.
A 2015 water sample by the company tested high for lead, which led to more sampling. Monthly samples collected and submitted since by the company and DHEC’s annual testing have not found significant water quality issues. Additional tests in 2018 determined the water was comparable to what York County provides at the head of the pipe.
“As far as the water quality, they have to do monthly sampling,” Reece said. “We look at the data. Make sure they’re meeting the state drinking water standards.”
At rate hearings dating back more than a decade, customers complained about discolored and smelly water. Customers at a 2017 public meeting with utility leaders called the water “disgusting” and “not safe to drink.”
“People are paying astronomical sums for a product of low and declining quality,” Climer said.
Reece said it’s possible the water tests well but could have issues by the time it comes into homes.
“We’ve seen this with systems, that overall the system is compliant with the regulations but when you get to these end-of-the-line (users) in a neighborhood, you’ve got availability issues, you’ve got these challenges,” she said.
Reece said there are options for additional testing on the Blue Granite system, and in more places. Plus, the state agency responds to all customer complaints of potentially harmful or contaminated drinking water within 24 hours.
“If we receive complaints from consumers, concerned about the water quality or maybe they may notice some discoloration or something like that, we immediately come out and investigate and have the authority to do additional sampling,” Reece said.
Norman and Climer want more done to improve the pipes getting water to customers.
“It does affect the quality,” Norman said. “That is the quality. When you’ve got something 60 years old, the quality is directly affected.”’
Rate increase request
Norman and Climer talked about other issues brought up by residents in recent town hall-style meetings. Norman talked about a lakefront house fire without adequate fire hydrants, a single customer paying $280 a month for service and a mandate from the company two years ago for public schools to water athletic fields with purchased water rather than well water.
“We’re very unhappy,” Norman said. “I’m still livid over the way they’ve acted. For them to even think about another rate increase, blows my mind.”
Blue Granite is seeking rate increases based on completed or planned system improvements.
“The proposed rate increase is necessary in order that it may provide reasonable and adequate service to its customers, cover its expenses, be permitted an opportunity to earn a reasonable return on its investment, and attract capital for future improvements,” the company states in the rate application.
Blue Granite said it has invested $23 million in its water and sewer systems since its most recent rate increase applied for last year.
“The evidence our community has experienced over the last year is that that plan for (Blue Granite) has been inadequate,” Climer said.
Norman asked if DHEC officials can take photographs of Blue Granite system pipes.
“It’ll show the deferred maintenance that’s not being done, and it should be,” Norman said.
A long-time developer in the area, Norman said most infrastructure goes in when developers build. Then the utility maintains it. The recent water shortage, Norman said, was about maintenance of a system handed over to the utility.
“The developer puts in all the lines,” he said. “They just don’t have the capacity. They haven’t re-invested in the system.”
The legislators and directors met the same day Rock Hill lifted its boil water advisory after a 30 million gallon water spill affected service throughout York County. Toomey said there’s work at the state level on river basin and water planning efforts. The governor appointed a commission for a statewide water plan. Still, he said, there’s plenty to be done.
“The issue of the water line break, it really exacerbates and highlights the dependency for what we all have for water,” Toomey said. “I think the state recognizes that.”
Part of the reason Tega Cay was able to buy out then sister company Tega Cay Water Service several years ago and a system consolidation happened in the Columbia area is residents spoke out on and documented issues as they arose. Those were wastewater issues and not water distribution, and they happened in cities unlike unincorporated areas.
Still, Norman and Climer call for the same type of vocal response in Lake Wylie.
Norman and Climer urge customers who see water problems to let DHEC know.
“There’s no better person than somebody that turns on the tap, to see any changes with the water quality,” Reece said.