Past mistakes leave us paying the water bill

Watching our water and sewer rates soar yet again is, to put it mildly, disagreeable.

Unfortunately, it’s the price we pay for past failures to pay for and maintain the sewer system and for replacement of a 70-year-old Water Treatment Plant. That’s the story behind our report on rising water rates on today’s page 1.

Our sewer system was a sieve that spilled untreated wastewater into the South Santiam during heavy storms, something that is not allowed at all by the Oreogn Department of Environmental Quality. The Wastewater Treatment Plant could receive flow rates of up to 22 million gallons per day. To help handle the flows, an expansion in the early 1990s increased the plant’s capacity to 7 million gallons per day and, frankly, that was probably not the best decision.

We needed to replace leaky sewer pipes. Now we’ve done it. The rates to pay for it are costing us more than most, if not all, other cities in Oregon. We had to complete decades of delinquent repairs and upgrades – all at once. The city did not spread the cost of replacement and repair out over the life of those pipes, so the cost hits all at once.

Councilor Bruce Hobbs, who is not particularly a government cheerleader, suggested last week that the city ought to collect all of the proposed “depreciation” costs and make sure we pay for replacement as we go about the process of trying to ensure that future generations avoid the mess we’re in now.

As they discussed this issue last week, the rest of the council took a more middle-of-the-road approach to avoid increasing rates too much on residents, certainly something we all appreciate. Even Public Works Director Mike Adams, who has to make all these repairs happen, didn’t seem too enthusiastic for anything more.

Unfortunately, the bottom line is that the costs are going to accrue again, and we’ve got to get out in front of them before the situation gets as unsustainably ugly as the federal debt. It wasn’t right for the city to ignore the costs in the past, and it isn’t right now.

While it pains us, Hobbs is probably right, no matter how much we don’t like what he has to say. We actually feel relieved by a mere $12-per-month increase in rates for the average consumer this year, as opposed to the $35-per-month hike required by Hobbs’ preferred option. Kudos to Hobbs for his willingness to take a stand for the toughest choice because it’s the right thing.

The Water Treatment Plant was old, and leaky. It did its job until the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency changed the rules in 1997. The plant had difficulty meeting the new drinking water standards, and solutions were expensive for a facility already nearing the end of its life.

We’ll pay for our new plant for about another 18 years, but then we should get a lot more years out of it, with a decrease in water rates. Like it or not, it was another expense in our utilities that had to be paid – in this case, it revolved around a federal regulation.

But the old plant was on borrowed time, and a new one was inevitable anyway.

It’s these costs driving our rates higher this year. It’s going to get worse because it must. The law demands it. Common decency demands it. We shouldn’t put untreated sewage into a river others use for drinking water.

We have to take care of it, and yes, it hurts.