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Millions in Pa. face rising water rates

| Thursday, Jan. 21, 2010, 12:00 p.m.

Several water authorities across the region increased water rates for 2010, but officials say their customers are still getting a good deal.

"It's still the best value of all the public utilities," said Gary Lobaugh, a spokesman for Pennsylvania American Water, the state's largest investor-owned water company. "There isn't a lot you can get for one penny per gallon."

Pennsylvania American in November implemented a 6.5 percent increase for more than 2 million people throughout the state, including 32 municipalities in Washington County and more than 40 in Allegheny County.

"We're not immune to what other businesses face. When gas prices go up, our costs go up. It's the same as most businesses," he said.

For most water authorities, rate increases are the only way to generate revenue for rising utility and water-treatment chemical costs, decreasing consumption and necessary improvements to aging systems.

West View Water Authority, the third-largest water authority in the state, increased rates by 18.5 percent this month, said Sharon Bruno, the authority's director of administration. West View Water serves about 200,000 people in parts of Allegheny, Beaver and Butler counties, including Bellevue, Emsworth, Franklin Park, Kennedy, McCandless, McKees Rocks, Ross, Stowe, West View and parts of Cranberry, Pittsburgh, Robinson and Shaler.

The rate increase was directly tied to a 26 percent increase in the cost of ductile iron pipe, which is used to repair and replace water mains, a 25 percent rise in the cost of ferric chloride, and a 43 percent increase in the cost of potassium permanganate, chemicals used to treat water, Bruno said.

"Rate increases are part of the rising costs of operating our business," she said.

Decreased consumption and increased costs forced the Municipal Authority of Westmoreland County to raise rates 20 percent in January, said manager Chris Kerr. The Westmoreland County water authority serves about 400,000 people.

The drop in consumption can be attributed to low-flow toilets, more-efficient appliances and water-conservation efforts, Kerr said.

The average residential customer used about 15,000 gallons each quarter 15 years ago. The average residential user now uses about 12,000 gallons, Kerr said.

"It's spiraling downward and it's not something we can control," he said.

In addition, government agencies such as the Department of Environmental Protection and the Environmental Protection Agency have implemented more-stringent rules and requirements for water authorities. Among them is a May 1 deadline to implement a reverse-call system to notify customers within 24 hours of major problems such as chemical leaks or water main breaks.

"Obviously, there are costs associated with that, too," said Anthony Lenze, executive director of the Municipal Authority of Robinson Township.

Officials at the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority didn't raise water rates this year, but adopted a 5 percent charge effective Jan. 1 to repair its aging infrastructure and enhance customer service, said Executive Director Michael Kenney. The surcharge will increase the average residential customer's bill by approximately $2.23 per month.

"We're going to continue to operate as effectively and efficiently as we can to minimize any increases," Kenney said. "We are implementing cost-saving measures, such as cooperation agreements for power and gas, to save us money."

The PWSA last increased water rates by 5.4 percent in January 2007.

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