Water co. looks toward sustainability

JOURNAL TRIBUNE, Posted: Saturday, April 26, 2014 6:00 am

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(Photo by Jeff Lagasse) Plant operator Tom Reardon stands amidst water pumping apparatus at the Maine Water treatment facility in Biddeford

By LIZ GOTTHELF | Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD — With major renovations needed at its South Street plant, the Maine Water Company has proposed rate increases, which it says are necessary to maintain a local facility and continue to provide water to its local customer base.

The South Street facility provides water to Saco, Biddeford, Old Orchard Beach and part of Scarborough. The former Biddeford and Saco Water Company was acquired by Maine Water in December of 2012.

The South Street facility was built in 1884, and has had limited modifications since a 1937 upgrade, according to an Oct. 2013 study from Woodard & Curran and Tata & Howard commissioned by Maine Water.

The study details about $7 million of immediate and short-term improvements needed to address code violations, safety concerns and bring the facility up to current industry standards.

Despite its shortcomings, the plant provides good quality water, and was among only a handful of water facilities in the United States to be recognized by the Partnership for Safe Water Program in 2006, according to the report.

“I think it provides great water,” said Maine Water President Judy Wallingford.

Rick Knowlton, vice president of operations, said in a tour of the facility in October that the former owners of the plant focused on a low-cost product, employed “very aggressive cost containment strategies,” and were “creative enough” to do the minimal amount of work possible to meet changing regulations.

The Maine Public Utilities Commission, which regulates water rates, recently approved a 2.7 percent increase to residential customer rates from the Maine Water Company’s Biddeford plant. The increase will take effect May 1.

The increase is needed to cover the cost of about $1.5 million in initial upgrades, said Wallingford.

Maine Water has proposed a scenario that would implement a 25 percent increase in October 2014, a 3 percent increase in March 2015 and a 3 percent increase in October 2015.

The current rates in the local district, at $31.20 a quarter for 100 gallons of water use a day, and $42.56 a quarter for 165 gallons a day, are the cheapest in the area and among the cheapest in the state.

“This is something that’s essential for life,” said Wallingford. The company delivers water to homes for less than half a penny a gallon, she said. “That’s a tremendous value.”

And it’s less expensive than water neighboring communities. Currently, the Kennebunk, Kennebunkport and Wells Water District charges $44.27 a quarter for 100 gallons of water use a day, and $79.95 a quarter for 165 gallons a day, according to data from Maine Public Utilities Commission. The Sanford Water District charges $56.41 a quarter for 100 gallons of water use a day and $76.25 a quarter for 165 gallons a day.

With Maine Water’s four proposed rate increases over the next year and a half, the rates would go up $11.29 a quarter for 100 gallons of use a day, and $15.04 a quarter for 165 gallons a day. This would be a rate increase of three to four cents a day from current rates, and proposed rates would still be cheaper than today’s rates from other area water companies.

When officials announced the merger in July of 2012, they said a rate increase planned for 2012 would be delayed.

Wallingford said in 2013, the local plant lost money. Because it’s part of a larger organization, the company was able to carry it for the short-term, but in order to be sustainable, there needs to be an increase, she said.

On the municipal level, a proposed increase of 20 percent for fire hydrant fees – which would mean an increase of more than $48,000 – raised some questions from Saco city councilors during an overview of the budget last month.

The proposed increase, said Wallingford, is needed to make available the capacity and pressure of water needed to put out a fire.

Mayor Don Pilon said in an interview this week that he would like more information regarding the cost of water for hydrants, and whether the water in hydrants is treated.

Pilon he’s toured the South Street facility and agrees upgrades are needed.

“They need to do something about it,” said Pilon, but he believes the increase in rates needs to be gradually phased in over time.

Wallingford said she will address proposed increases to town and city councils, and is scheduled to go to the Saco City Council meeting on May 9 and the Old Orchard Beach Town Council’s May 20 meeting.

A recent addition to the study done by Woodard & Curran and Tata & Howard states that a new facility would cost nearly $34.7 million, and would cost about $45,000 less than a long-term rehabilitation of the existing facility.

Wallingford said Maine Water officials believe that the best long-term plan would be to someday replace the South Street facility, though she said that plan is years away. Wallingford said as the company heads toward the path to a new facility, it will talk with other water plants in the area that also have aging infrastructure.

— Staff Writer Liz Gotthelf can be contacted at 282-1535, ext. 325 or egotthelf@journaltribune.com.

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