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Water rates begin to skyrocket across Western Pennsylvania, U.S.

Patrick Varine
| Sunday, Oct. 8, 2017, 12:12 a.m.
The cost of water varies from town to town, but one thing common to the region and the nation is an aging water infrastructure.
Patrick Varine | Tribune-Review
The cost of water varies from town to town, but one thing common to the region and the nation is an aging water infrastructure.

Water customers in Western Pennsylvania and across the nation are paying more as officials try to pay to repair, replace and update the systems that deliver it.

And it's going to cost billions of dollars more.

Last year, Municipal Authority of Westmoreland County residential customers paid roughly $85 more for water as the authority phased in the first installment of a three-year rate hike. Total rate increases could reach nearly 40 percent.

The increases are in service of a $140 million loan for capital improvements to the MAWC system.

Thursday marks the “Imagine a Day Without Water” organization's third annual campaign to draw attention to the nation's water infrastructure.

“Nationwide, water infrastructure is in deficit as far as replacement and reinvestment,” said MAWC spokesman Matt Junker, referencing a report by the American Society of Civil Engineers projecting that without significant investment in the billions of dollars, U.S. households will end up absorbing $59 billion in increased costs related to rate increases by 2020.

The American Society of Civil Engineers' report projects that if current investment and demand trends continue, the gap between nationwide needs and investment in water and sewer infrastructure will grow from $55 billion in 2010 to $144 billion by 2040.

A prime example is the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority. A consultant-commissioned report unveiled this summer showed that nearly every piece of rotating equipment at the authority's water plant exhibited evidence of significant neglect. PWSA loses through leaky pipes about 50 percent of the 25 billion gallons of water it produces, the report stated.

The authority lacks a holistic strategy for correcting problems and could “waste hundreds of millions” by spending money on the greatest perceived problems rather than a comprehensive facilitywide approach, according to the report.

Robert Weimar, PWSA's interim executive director, said the authority is “doing the best we can with what we've got.”

He described the report's findings as a “surface pulse” and said consultants would find upon a more detailed look that PWSA is aware of and attempting to address problems that were cited.

Junker said the MAWC is looking to avoid the Pittsburgh authority's situation by keeping current with maintenance and reinvestment. Upcoming improvements include a $40 million expansion and upgrade at its treatment plant, nearly $13 million in maintenance, upgrades and new construction of water storage tanks, $42 million in line replacements and nearly $5 million of work at its pump stations.

And water customers will foot the bill. The hikes are expected to bring in more than $13.6 million per year for the authority. Junker said the average monthly water bill for MAWC customers is just over $43.

“Our rates reflect a certain number of projects that we have to accomplish, and we have to meet the cost of providing water service,” Junker said.

Randy Kraus, consulting engineer for the Fawn-Frazer Water Authority, said water customers who feel as though they pay too much should understand that public authorities do not turn a profit.

“All of the surplus gets rolled back into the system,” Kraus said.

The authority that serves Fawn, Frazer and parts of West Deer, Springdale and Harrison has just over 1,900 residential customers who pay a little more than $26 per month for water.

“We have a number of storage tanks that will need maintenance and some repainting, and a couple pump stations that will require upgrades. Those are probably the biggest capital items they'll need to fund,” Kraus said.

Mark Nicely, manager of the Fox Chapel Authority, said its 5,500 customers pay rates — $15.38 per quarter, and a charge per 1,000 gallons that starts at $8.81 and drops with subsequent usage — that are among the top third in Allegheny County. Those rates will generate between $750,000 and $1 million in what he called “unallocated earnings.”

“That's the capital I'll put back into the system the following year,” Nicely said.

Patrick Varine is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-2862, pvarine@tribweb.com or via Twitter @MurrysvilleStar.

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