The real cost of water Community outrage: Public Service Commission must assure fair rates in areas with private suppliers.

November 10, 1998

THE OUTRAGE of the 11 households in the Bramble Hills subdivision near Westminster whose water utility rates skyrocketed 900 percent overnight is understandable. Homes were cut off by the private water company, before state intervention forced reconnection.

One can also understand the problem faced by the new owner of the communal well: bills long unpaid by some users and unexpected expenses for one of the tiniest private water utilities in Maryland.

The episode, though small in scope, highlights an important fact: safe, reliable drinking water is not free. Not only is demand rising, but costs of older water systems and new health regulations are boosting consumer prices.

The United States enjoys a bounty of clean water compared to much of the world. But treating water and delivering it to customers is expensive. Hookup fees are costly, pipelines and central plant need ongoing maintenance. Those who rely on private wells can face enormous costs in simply finding a usable supply.

Customers of private water companies can turn to the Maryland Public Service Commission for regulation. The PSC actively oversees some two dozen systems that have 25 customers or more. Bramble Hills fell off that list five years ago because it was too small. Rates of the PSC water companies range from $100 to $800 annually for a family of three. The new Bramble Hills rates could cost $5,000 a year for some households.

While smaller systems are more costly to operate than municipal systems, a PSC official declares the new Bramble Hills rates to be "unrealistic." The agency will review the rates and the owner's claim she must spend $50,000 to be in compliance. A monopoly on essential water service to a community must be regulated. Rate increases must be reasonable and proportionate. But customers of small systems must pay their fair share: Water is not free.

Pub Date: 11/10/98

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