The cost of the Bear Creek Project has started the inevitable “price creep”, or “price jump” in this case.
Newton County’s recently completed Master Water Plan contains an updated estimate of $114.9 million for the Bear Creek Reservoir and associated structures. County Attorney and water consultant Tommy Craig’s original “advertised price” was $62.7 million for the project. Craig said in a 2012 news story in the Newton Citizen that the reservoir would be built for “a bargain” compared to other reservoirs being constructed in the state. Apparently, the bargain has evaporated, so to speak.
Krebs Engineering, an Alabama based company and one of Mr. Craig’s frequently used consulting firms, was paid $240,000 to produce a Master Water Plan which was finally distributed to the Board of Commissioners in November. This document, still said to be a draft, recommends that the county build a number of water projects in the near future. The Bear Creek Lake ($35.8 million), the first phase of the Bear Creek Water Treatment Plant ($40 million), the new finished water transmission lines ($25.1 million) and the Alcovy River Pumping Station ($14 million) together totals $114.9 million. Add to that the $21.7 already spent on Bear Creek for land acquisition and permitting and the updated cost is now $136.6 million- more than double the original estimate by Mr. Craig and his consultants.
To be fair, the Alcovy River Pumping Station can be delayed but the Bear Creek Reservoir has limited water producing capability (8mgd) without refilling the lake with river water after heavy use seasons. But, in addition to the Bear Creek projects, the Master Water Plan also identified another $24.1 million for repairs and upgrades at the Cornish Creek and William Street Water Treatment Plants and to existing water distribution lines. Altogether, the plan recommends the county spend about $161 million for water system additions and improvements in the next four and one half years. Water customers and probably tax payers will have a really big debt piling up- about $161 million in round numbers!
The March draft of the Master Water Plan provided information on how Bear Creek and the other water projects could be paid for. Wholesale water rates would have to double by 2018 just to make payments for $89 million in bond debt. The plan did not state how the remaining millions in cost would be paid. The impact on individual households is difficult to predict at this stage. However, if the average family now pays about $34 per month for water or $54 for water and sewerage, this debt means the average bill could increase about $30-50 per month at a minimum. Interestingly, the latest version of the plan failed to include a projection of future water prices.
As our Board of Commissioners considers when and if the Bear Creek Reservoir should be built, their top priority must be determining just how this project will be paid for without putting Newton County residents over a $100 million in debt. Hopefully, other cheaper options for meeting future water needs will be sought and thoroughly evaluated.