Water woes ‘the price of growth’

Published 8:42 pm Saturday, July 28, 2012

Director of Public Utilities Albert Moor and Water Production Manager Vernon Land inspect groundwater treatment equipment at Robert G. House Jr. Water Treatment Plant. The technology, called electrodialysis reversal, removes fluoride, and Moore says it is the second-largest such facility in the world.

North Suffolk’s Shannon Brooks is fed up with hefty water bills.

She was last slugged $412 for two months, including wastewater charges. It was an improvement, though. The family’s initial bill after moving to College Square Townhomes and Apartments two years ago was $654, although that was reduced $100 on appeal.

Brooks blames leaking plumbing, saying College Square management “said they’d have the city come out and put in a new water meter … (and the) city said it was not the water meter and it wasn’t their fault.”

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Regardless of whether or not leaky pipes lurk beneath Brooks’ apartment, Suffolk’s water fees being the highest of the seven Hampton Roads’ cities bears a measure of responsibility for her pain.

This year, the city has charged $6.43 per 100 cubic feet of water — up from $5.84 in the previous fiscal year — or a minimum bi-monthly charge of $32.15, plus a monthly meter service fee of $2.40.

The rate is 35 percent higher than Chesapeake’s $4.18, 38 percent higher than Norfolk’s $4.01 and Virginia Beach’s $3.96, and 48 percent higher than Portsmouth’s $3.36. To encourage conservation, Hampton and Newport News, sharing a provider, charge $2.89, $3.32 or $6.64, depending on the amount used.

City Public Utilities Manager Albert Moor says residents are being charged more because Suffolk is a developing community borrowing money to build new water-delivery infrastructure.

“It’s the debt service … to build those facilities that is really driving our rates,” he said.

Suffolk is also under a consent order to eliminate sanitary sewer overflows, which occur during heavy rain — another cost.

Sewer overflow issues will be fixed in about 80 of the city’s 139 pump station service areas, Moor said, adding, “We have corrected a lot of the historical overflows … at least 20 to 30 activities in the past 12 months.”

He said that Suffolk has about 25,000 customers against Virginia Beach’s over 130,000 and about 60,000 each in Norfolk and Chesapeake, making it less able to spread costs among many customers.

And the Great Recession exacerbated the problem, he said.

“We were seeing over 1,000 new connections (annually) prior to 2007. This year we modeled at 250, but we will see 320. That equates to about a $7-8 million annual decrease in revenue.”

While developers build and dedicate water and other infrastructure to the city, Moor said city projects in turn stimulate economic development and job creation.

Slated city projects include expanding the G. Robert House Jr. Water Treatment Facility, installing a supply line to Norfolk, upgrading community wells in Whaleyville and Holland, and bids are set to be taken in the fall on three previously deferred “neighborhood” water infrastructure projects.

The new line would deliver 15 million gallons a day, for which Suffolk has an arrangement with Norfolk, Moor said.

Suffolk will keep 75 percent of that water and be paid by Isle of Wight for the remainder, he said.

Suffolk’s water needs are now mostly fulfilled by Lone Star Lakes, Crumps Mill Pond, three wells, and a daily purchase of 2.5 mega gallons from Portsmouth, according to Moor.

Back at College Square, another tenant, who wished to remain anonymous, said her bi-monthly bills average about $200.

“That’s too much when there’s just three people in the house,” she said. “I only take one shower a day. We might wash our cars maybe once every two months.”

Lisa Schwartz, regional property manager with apartment complex owner S.L. Nusbaum Realty Co., said apartments were checked and no leaks found.

Moore said water rates will likely stabilize, but not wind back, when Suffolk moves beyond this growth phase and debts are reduced or cleared.

“Right now we’re building facilities, and have been for a few years,” he said. “We’re building for the future, because you don’t build water facilities in one-year increments.”