Following a “water summit” between the Newton County Water and Sewerage Authority (NCSWA) board members and staff and the Newton County Board of Commissioners (BOC), the BOC voted at its Oct. 4, 2016, meeting to begin gathering information regarding the pros and cons of a sale of county water infrastructure to the water authority. The water authority now will move forward — at its expense — with an expert evaluation and financial assessment of the county-owned reservoirs, water treatment plants and other facilities. If the evaluation makes sense for both the authority and the county, the authority could make an offer to purchase those from the county.
Our current water production and distribution system is quite complex and involves several local government entities. The County owns and operates Lake Varner and City Pond reservoirs, the Cornish Creek and Williams Street water treatment plants and their associated pumping stations and other structures. Treated water is wholesaled to the authority which then operates a complex distribution system that supplies water to retail customers including the various cities in Newton County.
The concept of a single organization operating our water reservoirs, treatment plants and water distribution system is certainly promising. The Authority operates like a business enterprise and must balance its books each year. Political considerations are typically not a problem as is often the case with county government. The Authority could bring significant management and technical expertise to the entire water system which should result in long-term efficiency gains and subsequent cost savings for citizens and businesses. The county would receive a predictable long-term income stream while being relieved of costly repairs and upgrades, and the responsibility for the technical compliance and public safety issues associated with operating a public water system.
Currently, the county water department faces substantial challenges in the form of pending repairs and necessary upgrades at Cornish Creek and Williams Street treatment plants estimated to cost $10-20 million. An engineering study now underway will better define those problems and cost. In addition, the county’s enterprise water fund has a debt of around $18-19 million as a result of past treatment plant upgrades and paying for the Bear Creek Reservoir property and 404 permitting process. The county’s overall poor financial condition may make it difficult to find the money to do the critical upgrades and repairs that are needed immediately.
Hopefully, the NCSWA will be able to make a purchase offer that is financially sound for their customers, while providing revenue for the county government. The public and local industries could benefit by being assured of a safe, dependable and abundant water supply at a reasonable cost. Regardless of the outcome, the BOC and the NCWSA are to be commended for initiating this process. It’s a great example of the type of collaboration between public agencies that often produces solutions to complex local problems.