Isle of Wight water rates have increased dramatically

Published 12:55 pm Wednesday, September 14, 2016

By Diana McFarland

Managing editor

Isle of Wight County water customers have seen their rates go up nearly 48 percent since 2008 — from $6.55 per 1,000 gallons to $9.68.

The rate, which has increased steadily over those years, was increased another 9.5 percent in July.

Jose Hernandez, who lives in Carrollton and is an Isle of Wight water customer, recently complained that while the county is proud of not raising real estate taxes, continued water rate hikes could be considered a tax hike of another kind. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

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 Indeed, the rate hikes are a way to keep from draining county coffers to prop up Isle of Wight’s water utility, according to a staff report.

By comparison, Smithfield residents pay $5.68 per 1,000 gallons and Windsor residents pay $7 per 1,000. Both towns operate their own water systems.

Isle of Wight residents can expect continued rate increases of 9.5 percent a year through 2020, according to a staff report.

Isle of Wight County and the city of Suffolk have the highest water and sewer bills in the region, according to a rate study completed by Arcadis in 2015 for the Board of Supervisors.

Suffolk residents pay $9.03 per CCF, which is equivalent to 748 gallons, according to the city’s website.

The year 2008 is significant because the next year, 2009, was when Isle of Wight County, along with the city of Suffolk and the Western Tidewater Water Authority, signed a 40-year agreement with Norfolk to substantially increase the amount of water each locality could obtain. Isle of Wight and Suffolk are the only two members of the Western Tidewater Water Authority.

The Norfolk water deal incrementally increased the amount of water Isle of Wight had available to an additional 3.75 million gallons a day — although it is as yet unutilized.

Prior to the deal, Isle of Wight was entitled to three million gallons a day from the WTWA.

In 2008, Isle of Wight was buying .36 million gallons a day and today it’s using just a fraction more — .5 million — said Smithfield Supervisor Dick Grice, who has taken the lead in addressing the cost of water in the county.

Yet, along with the additional water capacity came a host of infrastructure improvements, and that is where the bulk of the expense comes from, Grice said.  

The actual cost of the water for fiscal 2015 was $690,000, compared to the $8.2 million Isle of Wight spent on related costs, including debt service.

Most of the cost is transporting the water, Grice said.

For example, Isle of Wight plans to build a water line from Suffolk to the intermodal park at a cost of about $3.1 million, plus another water line along Route 10 from Suffolk to Turner Drive at an estimated cost of $3.8 million.

In addition to added infrastructure, a prior Board of Supervisors several years ago decided to buy up private water systems in an effort to add water customers and increase revenue for a county-owned utility that was many years away from being out of the red.

However, that has turned out to be rather costly because those systems require maintenance, Grice said.

“Now that we own them, they’re expensive,” he said.

As a result of the Board’s various actions, the county has taken money from the general fund and fund balance, as well as borrowed money, to cover water-related expenses. A change in financial practices that began in 2014, as well as financial restructuring and a real estate tax hike, put a stop to that. Those practices, along with the scheduled water rate hikes, are designed to make the utility self-sustaining by fiscal 2033, according to a study by Arcadis and presented to the Isle of Wight Board of Supervisors last year.

To address the Norfolk water deal and its costs, Isle of Wight, Smithfield and Windsor are also in the process of creating a water task force to look at ways to best utilize the water available through the WTWA among the three county jurisdictions.

Grice said the water line from Suffolk along Route 10 to Turner Drive could provide water to Smithfield’s more than 2,900 water customer accounts, but only if the town stops using its reverse osmosis plant.

The water cannot be easily blended, he said, adding that the opposing cleansing chemicals, while not harmful, would make the water smell so bad that it would be undrinkable.

The water coming as a result of the Norfolk water deal is surface water, while Smithfield relies on water from an underground aquifer, and which the osmosis plant treats for excess, but naturally occurring, fluoride.

Smithfield is still in the process of paying off its reverse osmosis plant, which was built in 2010 at a cost of about $5 million.

Water is a growing concern

At the same time, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, concerned with falling water levels in the region’s underground aquifers, in 2014 proposed groundwater withdrawal permit reductions for 14 of the largest municipal and private systems in the Eastern Groundwater Management Area.

Those systems include the WTWA and the town of Smithfield. Smithfield is permitted for 1.27 million gallons a day, and currently uses about .86 million gallons a day.

At this point it’s uncertain as to what action DEQ will take when Smithfield’s permit expires in 2023. Presently the agency is seeking regional reductions, said Smithfield Town Manager Peter Stephenson.

The WTWA is permitted 8.34 million gallons, but DEQ’s requested target is 3.5 – 3.9 million gallons a day, which is what the authority currently uses, according to a report compiled by the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission.

The town of Windsor’s groundwater permit is currently under review and DEQ has asked the town to reduce its permitted amount from 597,000 gallons a day to 466,200 gallons a day, according to Town Manager Michael Stallings.

While the requested reductions are not below current usage, they could impact future economic development and growth, according to the HRPDC.

However, many systems also have surface water available that could meet future demand, according to the HRPDC.

Due to the increasing restrictions on groundwater withdrawals, Grice believes having access to surface water puts Isle of Wight in a good position for the future.

 “It’s a reasonably priced insurance policy,” he said, adding that other localities are in the process of seeking other sources beyond groundwater and competition will only increase.

“We don’t have that problem. We have a source,” Grice said.

Grice said he’s shown the contract to water attorneys in California — where water rights are often in dispute — who commend the deal as forward thinking and solid.

That view hasn’t been the most popular here at home, as the Norfolk water deal has increased in notoriety over the years, with several current and prior Board members openly criticizing its cost and burden on county taxpayers.

In the meantime, Isle of Wight has recently stepped up its efforts to reduce the cost burden by seeking potentially large water users for the intermodal park. The Board of Supervisors hired an outside consultant to target manufacturers that would fit the parameters of what the county has to offer.

The biggest issue with the water from the Norfolk deal going to the intermodal park is that it’s treated rather than raw — and costs considerably more for the customer.

Grice said there are manufacturers that must use treated water and that is one market the county and its consultant are pursuing.

Groundwater legislation

Conserving groundwater received heightened attention earlier this year by lawmakers at the General Assembly. Delegate Chris Jones of Suffolk, Sen. Louise Lucas and Del. Roslyn Tyler each submitted legislation dealing with water conservation. Lucas and Tyler represent a portion of Isle of Wight.

The three bills, similar in language, called for the State Water Control Board to establish a voluntary groundwater conservation plan that would provide incentives to those permit holders to reduce reliance on groundwater, transition to alternative sources or develop necessary infrastructure.

Jones’ bill was held over for the 2017 session while Tyler’s and Lucus’ died in committee.

Declining aquifer levels in southeastern Virginia, particularly in Suffolk and Franklin, can cause the land to sink, impacting wetlands and increasing flood risk, according to a report titled “An investigation of the economic aspects of coastal plain aquifer depletion and Actions that may be needed to maintain long-term availability and productivity” by Virginia Tech and published in 2014 for the DEQ.

The report states that more than half of the rate of sea level rise in southeastern Virginia is due to land subsidence — or sinking — of all kinds, with half due to pumping groundwater. It can also result in saltwater intrusion, which is costly to treat.   {/mprestriction}