Corroded pipes, pinhole punctures, crumbling sewer manholes, lift stations in need of upgrades- these are just a few of the items the Department of Public Utilities (DPU) faces to maintain its water and sewer systems.
While DPU reinvested during the past 10 years close to $16 million in water infrastructure and $6 million in wastewater collection and treatment infrastructure, more is needed to continue maintaining and operating the system. As a result, DPU is proposing implementing the final three steps of water and sewer rate increases as set forth in the long-range financial plans approved by the Board of Public Utilities (BPU) in 2015 for sewer and 2018 for water.
The rate increases for water would be 5 percent in fiscal year 2020, 4.25 percent in fiscal year 2021 and 4 percent in fiscal year 2022. According to documents provided at the public meeting, if approved a residential customer in a single-family home who consumes 6,000 gallons of water a month would see his or her monthly water bill increase from $41.75 to $43.81 in fiscal year 2020, $45.70 in fiscal year 2021 and $47.52 in fiscal year 2022.
The proposed rate increases for sewer services are 6 percent in fiscal year 2020, 3 percent in fiscal year 2021 and 2 percent in fiscal year 2022.
Public meeting documents indicate that the monthly rates would increase from $51.24 to $54.32 in fiscal year 2020, $55.95 in fiscal year 2021 and $57.07 in fiscal year 2022.
To explain to the public why these rates are necessary, DPU hosted two public meetings; one was held Monday, Oct. 7 and the second was held Thursday, Oct. 10.
During the Oct. 10 meeting DPU Manager Philo Shelton told the Los Alamos Daily Post, “The goal is by 2025 to only need further increases in alignment with inflation.”
When asked why these rate increases are necessary, he said, “To have safe and reliable utility services in both water and wastewater.”
Handout materials from the meeting explained that due to the Los Alamos topography, DPU faces further infrastructure obstacles related to providing services over mesas and canyons. Specific to the sewer system, DPU needs to maintain and operate two wastewater treatment plants, a complicated network of pipes, pumps and lift stations. For example, while Santa Fe requires only four lift stations to service 83,000 citizens, Los Alamos requires 27 lift stations for 18,000 citizens.
Regarding the wastewater system, Shelton said that the biggest need is to replace the wastewater treatment plant in White Rock.
The project is a substantial investment, he said, it totals $14 million.
Eleven of the 27 wastewater system’s lift stations also need to be replaced Shelton added. Other capital projects include installing new sewer lines and manholes.
The County’s water system is also in need of a few upgrades. For instance, Shelton said within the network of water lines, there are 60-year-old pipes made of cast iron or steel. As result, corrosion has occurred along with pinhole punctures in some of the pipes.
Plus, Shelton pointed out that DPU is working to comply with financial policies adopted by the BPU, to build up its cash reserves which are intended to strengthen the DPU funds and assure long-term viability of the systems.
Having healthy reserves is important not only to be prepared for unanticipated expenses related to the water and sewer systems, but to successfully secure loans. Shelton said in order to receive loans, it is helpful to have money up front, like putting a down payment on a house. Additionally, DPU needs to show sufficient revenue to cover repayment of the loan.
During his presentation, DPU Deputy Manager Jack Richardson showed that the rates increases were well within the means of the median household income in Los Alamos, according to American Water Works Association standards.
However, not everyone makes the median income; therefore, DPU offers a Utility Assistance Program. According to the meeting documents, the program was originally set up to aid with heating bills. Now, the program has expanded so that qualifying families can apply the assistance toward water bills. The BPU will be asked during its Wednesday meeting to allow program assistance to cover sewer expenses as well. The program is funded through utility customers’ donations. For more information, go to https://ladpu.com/UAPBrochure.
A public hearing about the proposed rate increases will be held during the BPU meeting 5:30 p.m. today in Council Chambers at 1000 Central Ave. BPU will consider whether to recommend Los Alamos County Council approve the new rates. If BPU approves the recommendation, then it will be introduced to council Oct. 29. Council will consider adoption of the recommended rate increases during its Nov. 26 meeting.