Like flooding after heavy rains, residents who rely on Walker County Water & Sewerage Authority are becoming accustomed to steadily rising water rates.

For the second year in a row the WCWSA board of directors approved rate hikes: about 36 percent last year and about 26 percent beginning Aug. 1, 2018.

Not only did last year’s rate increase boost the base rate, it also eliminated WCWSA not charging for the first 1,000 gallons of metered water.

A recent notice to customers states:

“The Walker County Water & Sewerage Authority (WCWSA) Board of Directors made the unanimous decision to increase water and sewer rates at its June 12, 2018 meeting, declaring the rate hike is necessary to address the increased cost in operations.”

A little more than a year ago, a source well tested positive for E. coli. The test was positive before the water exited the filtration and treatment — tainted water was not delivered to customers — but that positive test required a boil-water notice being issued to comply with Georgia Environmental Protection Division regulations.

To remove the boil-water advisory the county leased two portable filtration units — each the size of a tractor-trailer — at a combined monthly expense of $60,000.

When it was found that the system’s filtration equipment was in such poor condition as to make its repair unfeasible, the mobile units viewed as a short-term fix ended up costing rate payers more than $820,000 since June 2017.

Early this year, Commissioner Shannon Whitfield said an engineering firm had been hired to develop a plan to upgrade the treatment plant on Lee Clarkson Road, a process that might take “10 months or so” and could cost $10 million.

A major reason making modernization of the treatment plant necessary is that it was designed to treat clear, well water, the original source of the system’s water supply. The plant was not set up to handle ground water that carried sediment. It was surface water making its way to the incoming treatment plant that led to the EPD order.

The commissioner had been in office a short time before learning that the northern end of the county had an old and decaying sewer system.

Not only was the system failing, it relies on Chattanooga’s Moccasin Bend Wastewater Plant for treatment and is billed for that service.

Officials have estimated that as much as 40 percent of the water leaking into the sewer system comes from broken lines, underground springs and storm water runoff. Not only has the volume flowing north for treatment before being discharged into the Tennessee River grown, the problem is compounded by changes in how much the county is charged.

In February, Whitfield said the monthly bill for treatment had increased from between $40,000 and $50,000 each month to about $220,000.

That is why WCWSA board members spent more than $920,000 during the past year to repair about 3½ miles of leaky sewer lines.

In prepared remarks, the WCWSA states, “Additional system upgrades, including infrastructure improvements to water and sewer lines, are estimated to cost into the tens of millions of dollars. These improvements will be made over the next 36 months. Over time, these investments will improve the overall water & sewer operating system”

County spokesman Joe Legge said improvements are already being noticed regarding the sewer system that was experiencing more than 100 million gallons a month of infiltration into the sewer system.

“Due to some of the slip-lining that has occurred over the past 12 months, that number has been reduced to about 60 million gallons a month,” Legge said. “That's still a lot of water getting into the system that has to be treated with no revenue associated with it. It literally costs the Water Authority money every time it rains.”

The millions of dollars needed to restore the water and sewer system will be paid by customers. As of August 2018, the residential base water charge will increase by $4 per month, along with a $1.15-per-one-thousand-gallon usage increase.

Customers who are also provided sewer services from WCWSA, will see a $4 per month base rate increase for sewer, along with a $1.15 per gallon sewer usage increase.

The WCWSA offered this example: The average family household of four people uses 5,000 gallons of water per month. In this example the customer’s bill would increase by $9.75 ($4 per month base rate increase + 5.75 usage increase). If this customer also has sewer service, the monthly sewer increase in this example would also increase by $9.75 ($4 per month base rate increase + 5.75 usage increase). In this example, the family would pay an additional $19.50 per month for both water and sewer.

In closing, the WCWSA notice to customers said its “board and staff leadership, along with industry engineering experts, have worked diligently to review long-term solutions that will carry us forward for the next 30 years. Regretfully, due to years of costly neglect of our vital infrastructure, the Board agreed unanimously there is no other viable option at this time.”

Mike O'Neal is assistant editor for the Walker County Messenger in LaFayette, Ga. He can be reached at the Messenger office at 706-638-1859 and by email at moneal@npco.com.