NWWSD President's thoughts on Toledo water emergency

 

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All:

A number of topics have been covered to some degree in our region’s print media and television news this past week.  Here are some of my thoughts on those stories, and how they might impact us here in Wood County. 

 

TOLEDO PLANT IMPROVEMENTS:

It is no secret to any of Toledo’s regional water partners that Toledo’s water treatment plant needs significant improvements, and that the improvements are long overdue.  As with so much of the nation’s public infrastructure, lack of money and attention have led to several decades of neglect that have only compounded the problems.  In some ways, Toledo residents – along with our own residential and commercial customers in the Toledo water system – have benefitted from this neglect:  the lack of investment in the plant has allowed Toledo to offer lower water rates than other regional suppliers.  While other regional water providers such as Bowling Green and Oregon made costly capital improvements to their plants, causing higher water rates, Toledo was able to hold the line with their rates and enjoy large excess water capacity which they made available to the rest of the region.

Unfortunately, this lack of investment has now contributed to the current situation at Toledo’s water plant.  And Toledo customers will now see continued water rate increases due to $200-300 million in needed capital improvements. It will be an uneasy period as these investments are made and the rate transition occurs. 

It is also worth keeping mind that our area’s total water demands have fallen to levels similar to 10 years ago.  Most of us have gotten better at recycling and reusing water, and our appliances and fixtures have become much more “green.” So while we may have some growth in total number of “rooftops” in the region, without additional major industrial or commercial users, our overall water use has changed very little.

 

REGIONAL OWNERSHIP:

For several years now, there have been discussions and meetings between various political subdivisions to review the idea of a regional owner for the Toledo water plant. This concept has proven to work in larger urban centers such as Cuyahoga County (Cleveland), Hamilton County (Cincinnati), and in other larger areas such as Indianapolis. 

There is ample proof that “regionalizing” a major public utility can result in smoother, more efficient operations.  We here at Northwestern Water and Sewer District are a great example of that!  Whether it is water or sewer or fire or EMS, replacing multiple governmental entities providing duplicate services in adjoining areas with a single regional provider should always be considered as a way to keep costs low and maintain high levels of service. 

However, in the Toledo case there will likely continue to be disagreement over the two big issues in these situations:  control of board seats and setting of utility rates. These two big issues will have to be resolved first before the $350-500,000 is spent on other necessary details of such a study.

What is our District’s role in these discussions?  I go to every meeting of these study groups, as I have for over 20 years.  But until we see a clear benefit for Wood County in the idea, while we will be active in the discussions, but will not be an owner in the Toledo water plant.  While it would serve our customers well for us to have an ownership role in Lake Erie water treatment plant capacity in order to gain better control of our own rates and needs, we believe our organization works well at our size and in Wood County’s situation.  We would like to be part of Toledo’s effort going forward, but the majority of the assets and customers of the Toledo system are in the City of Toledo and Lucas County.  Until tax-sharing and other non-utility economic development issues are better resolved between the elected officials in Toledo and Lucas County, we do not see the benefit to the customers of Northwestern Water & Sewer District in participating directly in a regional ownership arrangement in the Toledo water treatment plant.

All that being said, it’s also likely that there will once again be significant regional interest in studying non-Toledo water sources.

 

GOVERNOR KASICH’S $150 MILLION FUND FOR WATER QUALITY STUDIES, ETC.

Ohio’s governor announced Thursday the availability of low-interest loans for projects to improve Lake Erie’s water quality and conservation. We have only seen what the media has provided regarding the announcement, and will be reviewing the details closely to see if we can benefit on behalf of our customers. For example, if there is funding for improving water quality, that revenue stream could be beneficial in keeping water rates low even with impending plant improvements.

We would like to expand the number of WaterSheds we operate, and the new funding may allow for that, but we do not yet know. These stand-alone reverse osmosis (RO) and ultraviolet treatment units offer a great alternative to bottled water and tap water at a very economical price, and we were able to use them effectively as alternative safe-water distribution points during Toledo’s water emergency. 

 

BOWLING GREEN-PERRYSBURG INTERCONNECTION:

The state also has grant money to study intergovernmental cooperation opportunities where government can save money and operate more efficiently. Near the south end of Perrysburg we have the physical capability to “interconnect” two water systems with either Toledo water from the north or Bowling Green water, sourced from the Maumee River, from the west and south. This possibility has existed for several years, but until the recent water emergency it never received much attention or discussion.  An interconnection would not be for permanent use, but in times of emergency, and if all parties agree, the water could literally flow from either direction through the point of interconnection. 

Are similar possibilities available elsewhere in our system? We buy and resell water from other regional providers in other parts of the county.  What are our options if something were spilled into the Maumee River, for instance, where Bowling Green draws its water? Oregon and Fostoria also have stand-alone systems that could someday be impacted by problems in their water sources.  We are looking at how changes might occur to make similar interconnections feasible elsewhere.

 

ADDITIONAL WATER SAMPLING:

We’ve been asked to consider doing additional sampling of Toledo’s water for other less- or non-regulated toxins, but so far do not see the need. In the crisis on August 2nd and 3rd, Toledo was able to treat the microcystin toxin before the water left the plant. This assured all of us that it had not gotten into the distribution system on which we all depend. It takes between two and three days for water leaving Toledo’s Collins Park plant to enter NWWSD’s system for use  by our customers in Rossford, Walbridge, the western section of Northwood, Lake Township, Troy Township, and Perrysburg Township. Thus, the risk was well-contained before it ever got “out” into the distribution system for consumption.

Toledo’s laboratory and water plant operators are professionals who carry treatment licenses and attend required continuing education class hours and training every year. They performed well during this time of crisis, as they always have during our many years of experience with them. 

But until federal and Ohio EPA regulators provide guidance and set limits, monitoring toxins such as microcystin will be a gray area for plant operators, with little research to support their handling of these toxins.  Perhaps additional attention, such as the Governor’s research funding announced yesterday, will help the situation! 

 

SUMMARY:

There is daily coverage of water and sewer issues right now and hopefully you have a good reliable news source for this information. Please feel to contact one of our senior managers if you would like to discuss these issues further. Our professional engineer Tom Stalter has 30 years of experience in utilities, as does our Operations Superintendent Dan Wickard. They have both been part of these types of discussions many times in their work situations. 

As always, I am glad to respond to questions either by phone, email, or our Facebook page. Have a good week!

Jerry Greiner

President