The Soaring Cost of Treating Water


March 20, 1994|By MIKE BURNS

In small quantities, water is usually free in these parts. Let them turn off the drinking fountains or the public rest room faucets, let some restaurant add a charge for a glass of water to your check, and most of us would resent it.

But when we purchase it in bulk, H2O definitely gets expensive. Treating wastewater is even more costly.

So Harford County is set to raise water and sewer rates by an average 10 percent, Bel Air is hiking sewerage rates 20 percent, and Aberdeen will pay an extra $700,000 a year to find additional supplies to supplement its dwindling wells.

Harford County expects to lose a quarter-million dollars in water and sewer operations this fiscal year (ending June 30), even if the rate increase is enacted quickly.

More increases are projected through the rest of this century. County Treasurer James Jewell predicts a 12 percent increase in 1996, a 9 percent rise in 1997 and another 5 percent hike in 1998. That's only to keep the water and sewer fund out of deficit, not to build up a surplus for future expansion.

The result will be a cumulative 100 percent increase in county rates in less than 10 years, notes Councilwoman Theresa Pierno.

"Are we reaching the point where we'll price a system outside of what our constituents can afford?" she wonders. Fat chance!

Even at the higher rates, no one is going to turn off the spigots and disable the toilets and sinks in protest. There's no competitor down the road waiting to soak up the business, either. Private water companies that serve the county already have about as much as they can handle. (And you think irate county customers are going to beg Campus Hills Water Works to hook them up?)

Mrs. Pierno, who has consistently voted against water and sewer bonds for expanding county facilities, reiterated her call for a detailed study of growth costs, including water and sewer and other public facilities. Increasing county water system capacity for future growth is going to unfairly burden current residents with higher rates, she says.

County officials claim the new rates will encourage conservation, and thus slow the pace of expansion needs. The base minimum usage of 6,000 gallons per quarter is eliminated; customers are charged for each 1,000 gallons they use.

A surcharge of $1.07 per 1,000 gallons (for combined water-sewer) kicks in after a customer uses 32,000 gallons in a quarter -- twice the average usage rate. That's not going to affect many households, even larger families, that make a conscious effort to save water.

Of course, government always points to its "conservation ethic" every time it charges you more for providing less. But with the evident soaring costs of providing clean water, there's a sensible basis for this change in rates. Most people will pay more than they now do, but they will have a rational economic incentive to limit consumption.

In Bel Air, only the sewer half of the bill will increase. That's because the Harford County sewerage system treats Bel Air's wastewater, under contract, although it does not supply the water. (Privately owned Maryland American Water Co. does.)

Harford raised its charges for the town last June from 93 cents to $1.16 per 1,000 gallons, which will cost Bel Air an extra $80,000 a year. (Harford raised those sewer fees for Bel Air right after the County Council rejected a water-sewer increase for county customers.)

Aberdeen and Havre de Grace have their own municipal sewage treatment plants. Havre de Grace shares a water treatment plant with Harford County that has provided an abundance of aqua pura for the town; the problems are operational costs and excess capacity.

So Aberdeen is thinking of buying the county's half of the Havre de Grace plant (and raw water supply) to solve its needs. Other alternatives include buying an allotment from Harford's Abingdon treatment plant now abuilding, or constructing a new plant along Swan Creek to tap that surface water supply.

Building its own plant would cost more than $5 million, depending on location, and would take from three to five years. Meanwhile, the water table of Aberdeen's 11 wells is dropping four inches a year and has been for more than five years.

William McKean, the city public works director, points out that buying the county's half at Havre de Grace would provide a quicker fix. But it might result in complications, since Havre de Grace supervises the county employees that run the plant and requires the county to buy part of the treated water from its half of the facility. Building a new municipal plant would give 'N Aberdeen more complete control of costs and quality, Mr. McKean said.

In any case, Aberdeen will need to buy 250,000 gallons a day from the county to meet current shortages and build up its reserves for emergencies. That will cost about $700,000 a year.

So while everyone grumbles about rate increases, Mr. Jewell notes that "water is not an unending commodity." Or, as the English proverb reminds us, "We never know the worth of water till the well is dry."

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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