83° F Thursday, July 20, 2017

An article on the front page of last week’s Picayune and in Monday’s American Statesman with the headline,“Water district says hydrant upgrades would cost millions,” correctly points out that maintaining a water system so that it provides sufficient fire flows and pressures at every fire hydrant is an expensive proposition.

Over the past few decades, Water District 10 has done an admirable job of providing good, clean water to its customers at affordable rates. But as we now know, simply providing tasty water for drinking and watering our yards is not enough. Water for fighting fires is equally important, if not more so – especially if you live in one of the approximately 125 homes (by the district’s count) that is unlucky enough to be near a low-flowing fire hydrant.

Water District 10 recently released an engineering feasibility study that explores the options and costs for improving the fire flows in these high fire risk areas of our city. The district’s engineering firm estimates that the costs will exceed $18.5 million. The accompanying press release and a memo from the district’s Board President Clif Drummond expresses alarm at these high costs and grave concern about the impact of these costs on the district’s tax rate. He questions whether such an investment makes sense because it only “directly benefits” 125 homes. He opines that even high-flowing fire hydrants will do little to stop a Bastrop-like wildfire.

There are so many problems with those statements and the underlying attitude that they reflect that it’s difficult to address them all in this space. I’ll give it a shot.

First, Mr. Drummond has repeatedly claimed that a large wildfire would be impossible to stop. I guess he believes that it’s not worth trying? But more importantly, he continues to overlook a far more likely (and equally deadly) scenario – that a large house fire could catch the surrounding vegetation on fire, resulting in a major wild fire that could devastate our entire community. To claim that these critical water system upgrades would only benefit 125 homes is absurd. If one of those 125 homes catches on fire, and the fire department doesn’t have enough water to contain it, then far more than 125 homes could be destroyed.

The notion that the only way to pay for these infrastructure upgrades would be to raise the district’s tax rate by an alarming amount is equally absurd. The district has many options for funding such upgrades, including the issuance of bond debt, adjustments to water rates, grant funding – or perhaps the district could use some of the $11 million in cash that it has in the bank? Mr. Drummond is clearly trying to portray these cost estimates in the most unflattering light possible in a cynical effort to gather public support against them.

Mr. Drummond tells us that the district has issued more than $7 million in bonds over the past 55 years for capital improvements to upgrade their infrastructure. Although his memo makes it clear that he believes that to be an impressive amount, I conclude otherwise. To me, that number is a clear explanation for why there are significant parts of the WD10 system that have inadequate fire flows. I feel that $7 million over 55 years for a water system the size of theirs is a paltry sum. They simply have not spent enough over the past 30 years to keep their system up to date as larger homes are being constructed in areas where the risk of fire has been steadily increasing.

I believe the district has neglected significant parts of its infrastructure and its responsibilities to provide adequate fire flows to our community. I believe that the district should have been maintaining its hydrants better, and it should have been more focused on the water pressures and flows coming out of those hydrants. But it’s not too late. Fortunately, they now appear to be taking a serious look at the problem. I just hope they move forward quickly to correct the deficiencies – before a single house fire destroys the community we all love.
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  1. You cannot be serious says:

    Let’s see, $18,500,000 divided by 125 houses equals $1,480,000 per house. Hmm. It must be that these 125 homeowners expect someone else to pay for the totally uneconomical expenditure for their benefit by passing along the costs to others through their dramatically increased taxes and water rates.

  2. Math Wizard says:

    18,500,000 / 125 = 148,000. NOT $1.48MM. Still quite a bit per house, but I see this as a long overdue correction rather than some lavish expense that only benefits 125 homes. And by “benefit”, I mean “bring them up to the level the rest of the homes in District 10 have been accustomed to for years”.

  3. Let's think about that. says:

    You want the District to expend $18,500,000 for in additional investment thereby increasing the District’s debt financed facilities well over three fold. And you want the take this action for benefit of 125 present water customers who chose to build in certain areas which you say impose a special fire risk to their houses. What does this do to the water rates to be paid by the other 2760 District customers? You have not mentioned that. Let’s think about that.The district has a total of 2885 water service connections according to its web site. That figures to be 7,ooo,ooo/2885=$2426.34 as the indebtedness per connecton for the system collected in the present level of water service rates. Now you want to add to that an additional $148,500 investment per connection for the special benefit of 125 out of the District’s 2885 total customers because this 125 customers chose to live in property located in a certain remote, low density, heavily wooded hilly areas on the western side of the city. But you do not want those costs to be borne by those 125 properties that would impose this extraordinary investment burden on the District. Rather you want it to be paid for by others. What does this do to the water rates to be paid by the other 2760 District customers? What would the high water rates and tax increase do to the value of their property? You have not mentioned that. Is there a reason?

  4. Fair is Fair says:

    As I understand it the District is in the process installing new higher capacity local distribution pipelines on the eastern side of the city (in the Brady Lane area) to upgrade the size of local waterlines in that area. The District is charging the cost of those new local service facilities solely to the houses located in the area which imposes the additional investment costs. And this is said to be necessary to protect all other customers of the District from having to bear these special local costs. And the District is doing this by imposing a per house charge as a lien against each property in that eastern sector being upgraded. And this is said to be required by fairness and as a part of the general practice that the investment cost of local distribution facilities, including to assure adequate fire flows and hydrants in the area, is a cost properly to be borne by homeowners in the area who benefit from them. Shouldn’t those who own property in remote hilly locations on the western side of the city have the same policy applied to and available to them? And I assume that the financial position of the District which some would like to deplete for the benefit of 125 houses on the northwest side of the city exists at least partly through the payment obligation on those houses on the east side of the city in the Brady Lane area. Fair?

  5. Don't be Short-Sighted says:

    A governmental entity should exist for the benefit of the public. Expenditures for our water system to increase fire hydrant flows for substandards sections of the water system infrastructure don’t “just go to the benefit of 125 homes” as many of these commenters would have you believe. If adequate fire flows are put in place and can stop a house fire with just that one house, those improvements BENEFIT US ALL. Does anyone really expect or ask residents who live on a particular city street to pay for street repairs because those street repairs benefit only them? No. The WD#10 acquisition of the Ridgewood Water System is completely different. That was an negotiated take over of one failing governmental water district by WD#10. It is not an upgrade of an area where WD#10 has had taxing and water supply authority for many decades.

    The improvements being requested are reasonable, benefit all WCID 10 customers and should be what we expect from our water district. BTW, the fire hydrant that is nearest to my home flows at 1,500+ gallons per minute.

  6. Don't be fooled says:

    Most often the investment to pay for water distribution pipelines and fire hydrants is incurred initially by the subdivision developer either directly by contracting to have the facilities installed or indirectly through payments of charges made to the developer by the water utility to make the service available in the development. In either case this investment cost is nevertheless borne by the homeowner and not by the water utility, and hence, by other homeowners served by the water utility. It is up to the city to require the developer to install adequate local service facilities in the city’s subdivision, platting, and construction permit processes. This investment is not something extracted from the hide homeowners other than those who are served by the local facilities. Are those urging the District to incur a very large investment burden to put in an enhanced local waterline in the hills actually land speculator developers seeking to avoid the investment that they should be required to make as a part of their cost of land speculation in the area?

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