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Price of water dries up wallets

Price of water dries up wallets

 

Employees of McCandless Township Sanitary Authority work on repairing a pipe on Friday, May 29, 2015. The pipe was likely installed in the 1950s or 1960s.

By Aaron Aupperlee
triblive.com

Saturday, June 13, 2015, 10:10 p.m.
Updated 34 minutes ago

 

The costs are enormous: $105 million for a new West View Water Authority treatment plant, $62.5 million to upgrade and expand wastewater facilities in McKeesport and up to $40 million for Cranberry’s wastewater plant.

And the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority has started its $2 billion federally mandated sewer overhaul to keep sewage out of rivers and streams.

Customers pay for this.

“America is blessed with clean drinking water, but that comes at a cost,” said Township Manager Jerry Andree in Cranberry, where residential sewer bills increased about 26 percent last year and water bills will jump about 50 percent in August.

The era of cheap water is over.

Demand coupled with crumbling infrastructure, stringent environmental regulations, and little government funding have led water and sewer authorities to pump up rates and fees to cover maintenance, improvements and expansions.

America’s water and sewer infrastructure needs $1 trillion in improvements and $300 billion to meet environmental regulations, the Environmental Protection Agency found.

In Western Pennsylvania, upgrades, expansions, repairs and compliance will cost more than $3 billion, said John Schombert, executive director of 3 Rivers Wet Weather, a nonprofit working with municipalities on sewer issues.

Sewer rates in the region more than doubled in the past 10 years, Schombert said. The average household in most of Allegheny County pays nearly $550 a year, a price that could top $1,200 a year in the next decade, he said. It’s not much better in Westmoreland County, where sewer bills range from $270 a year in Hempfield to $600 a year in North Huntingdon, officials said.

Nationally, rates doubled from $222 a year in 2000 to $448 a year in 2014 and could spike again, according to the National Association of Clean Water Agencies in Washington. People notice their water bills, said Adam Krantz, the association’s managing director of government and public affairs.

“You start to say, ‘Why am I paying so much for water? It’s just water,’ ” Krantz said. “It has enormous value, and we do need to charge more for it.”

FRAGMENTED PROJECTS 

Allegheny County has more than 40 authorities handling treatment, and Western Pennsylvania has well over 200 authorities that operate separate or shared systems. Topography, not municipal borders, determines who oversees treatment.

When rates increase for a big provider such as Alcosan — which serves almost 1 million people in Pittsburgh and 80 other municipalities — communities charge more to keep up.

Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority increased rates 4 percent this year to cover the cost of infrastructure improvements. Customers will pay, on average, $1.94 more a month to the authority and $4.19 more to Alcosan.

Alcosan raised rates 17 percent last year and 11 percent this year, and intends to impose 11 percent increases in each of the next two years to pay for its wastewater control project. By 2017, the average Alcosan customer will pay $417.51 a year, up from $260.92 in 2013.

“It’s terrible,” said Velda Bradley, an Alcosan and Wilkinsburg-Penn Joint Water Authority customer who lives on a fixed income.

Her water and sewer bill jumped recently from $45 to $78 and to $128 a month because of Alcosan’s rate increase.

“Something needs to be done to assist people on fixed incomes with their water bill.”

Bradley, 53, of Swissvale volunteers for Action United, which has urged Alcosan to help people with their bills. Alcosan’s board of directors established a subcommittee in March to study starting a customer assistance program.

The state Department of Environmental Protection is working with 40 smaller sewer authorities — such as McKeesport, New Kensington, Kiski Valley, Greensburg, Kittanning and Monaca — to reduce overflows, said John Poister, a DEP spokesman.

McKeesport raised rates two years ago, partly to pay for its plant expansion and system upgrades. The authority tacked $5 onto the $25 a month that residents pay for up to 2,000 gallons of water. Bills for customers it serves outside McKeesport jumped $1.85 for every 1,000 gallons used, said Chuck Schultz, superintendent of the municipal authority.

The state has offered assistance to authorities. The Pennsylvania Infrastructure Investment Authority has given out about $7.56 billion statewide since 1988 in grants and low-interest loans to support water and sewer projects, said Brian Johnson, the agency’s deputy director.

COSTLY OLD PIPES 

Sometimes, the region’s century-old infrastructure — and not government-mandated improvements — drives up costs.

Latrobe Municipal Authority, for example, raised water rates about $4 in March because of frequent pipeline breaks, and tacked on a monthly fee of $1 to $2 for line replacement. The increases take effect this month.

Moon had about 80 miles of decades-old clay pipe that can collapse, said John Riley, general manager of the township’s municipal authority. Officials increased rates from $5 to $7 per 1,000 gallons in 2012 to start replacing the pipe, and four years later, it has about 60 miles left to replace. That will cost about $19 million.

“Nearly every time that we had a big rain, there were families that had a sewage backup in their basements,” Riley said. “We don’t have people coming to our meetings anymore, telling us that they’ve had a sewer backup.”

McCandless expects to spend $10 million to $15 million during the next five years to repair and replace pipes and upgrade its treatment plant, said Bill Youngblood, executive director of its sanitary authority. The authority budgets $500,000 to $750,000 yearly for maintenance, and increases rates every few years to keep up with costs — including Alcosan rate increases that cost the authority $1.7 million in 2014.

ANY INCREASE UPSETTING 

Growing demand for clean water, mostly from development, is raising rates, too.

West View Water Authority, for example, added 500 accounts last year. It projects 31 percent population growth in the next 15 years.

“Every time you turn around, there’s a new shopping center popping up,” said Joseph Dinkle, executive director of operations.

West View will increase rates about 26 percent in July to pay for its plant and system upgrades totaling $105 million. The average quarterly bill will rise from $82.32 to $104.04 — but will be among the cheapest rates in the area, Dinkle said.

Any increase, no matter the need, upsets customers, officials said. People don’t understand what goes into providing clean water to a home’s faucets or disposing of water flushed down toilets, said Krantz with the National Association of Clean Water Agencies.

“The general psychology is that it falls from the sky, and we’re entitled to it, by right, at the cheapest cost,” he said.

Aaron Aupperlee is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7986 or aaupperlee@tribweb.com.

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