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Cleveland: City wants its water plants fixed
Sunday, April 16, 2000
By CHRISTOPHER QUINN
PLAIN DEALER REPORTER
That huge water-main fracture that flooded downtown Cleveland earlier this year came at an opportune moment for the citys Water Division:
The people who run the nations eighth-largest water system want to boost customers rates by about a third over the next five years. And they say the downtown flood is good advertising for the need to make repairs. They also say that water main breaks are trifling when compared with catastrophes waiting to happen at the citys aging water plants.
"Focusing on the [water] mains is like focusing on varicose veins when youve got major heart problems," said Reuben Sheperd, Mayor Michael R. Whites executive assistant who oversees utilities.
And the water system has heart problems. Three of the four cavernous plants that clean and treat the Lake Erie water consumed by 1.5 million people in Northeast Ohio are worn out. They need piping, building renovations and modern computerized equipment to replace the mechanical gauges installed as early as 1917.
Without upgrades, equipment could fail catastrophically, cutting water to thousands of city and suburban homes in a flash, city officials fear.
This week, the City Council is scheduled to start considering Whites proposal to boost water rates charged to Cleveland and the citys suburban customers by 6 percent a year for the next five years. The increases would help pay for $587 million in improvements, mostly to water plants.
For the average home in Cleveland, the annual water bill would rise to about $203 five years from now, compared with about $152 today.
But the proposed increase is actually less than hikes over the last two decades. Through the 1980s, the average annual increase was 11 percent. In the early 1990s, water prices rose 8.5 percent annually, and for the last five years, rates increased 7 percent a year.
Clevelands Water Division serves 69 communities in Cuyahoga, Summit, Lake, Lorain and Medina counties, and rates get higher the farther customers live from the city. Rates for suburban customers would rise 6 percent annually, too. People who receive discounts through homestead exemptions would see 3 percent annual rate increases. The city has increased its water rates steadily since it settled a suit filed by suburbs trying to regionalize the system about 20 years ago. The city promised to make major improvements in exchange for maintaining control of the system.
"To just keep raising water rates doesnt make us happy," said Strongsville Mayor Walter Ehrnfelt. "I want to see this justified."
Julius Ciaccia Jr., city water commissioner, said the increases have made the water system a good one, with reliable service and some of the cleanest water in the nation. Every year, the division spends about $50 million on maintenance.
Most of that money, however, has gone to the pipes that bring you your water, not the plants that clean and treat it. Clevelands Crown Water Treatment Plant in Westlake is the exception. The city recently spent $135 million removing its rusted, rotten pipes and equipment. Today, 10,000 sensors measuring pressure, chemicals and other factors continuously send data to computer controls.
The pipes in the other three water plants are original. In the case of the citys largest water plant, Baldwin Waterworks on Stokes Blvd. on the East Side, the pipes are 75 years old.
"It will make E. 9th St. [water line rupture] pale if one of these goes," Ciaccia said, because the plant would have to shut down.
In the enormous filter rooms of the Baldwin plant, where water seeps through dozens of swimming pool-size sand tanks to be cleaned, water drips from rotted pipes to concrete floors. Many of the gauges that measure pressure and flow stopped working long ago. The concrete roofs over the filters are rotting from above. Rust is everywhere.
The citys oldest water plant, the Garrett A. Morgan Waterworks, which opened in 1917 on W. 45th St., has corroded steel platforms and a cracked concrete reservoir. The Nottingham Filtration Plant on St. Clair Ave. has corroded pipes and valves.
Two years ago, the council approved spending $35 million to have plant renovations designed, and last fall, with the designs in hand, White proposed rate increases to pay for the repairs. The council never considered them.
Time is running short, and the city needs to start collecting the extra cash, officials say. In the past, the city paid for water projects by borrowing 80 percent of the cost, but Ciaccia said he is trying to save on interest charges and borrow only 40 percent of the cost of water plant renovations.
"Its a little disappointing that we put in this legislation six months ago, and were just now getting before council," said Sheperd, the mayors executive assistant. Councilman Michael OMalley, head of the Utilities Committee, said he feared acting on the rate increase because of the mood of his colleagues. He said their displeasure with electric-rate increases approved in January left them unready to approve any other boosts.
OMalley said Friday that he cannot understand why the city needs to raise water prices every year.
White also has proposed boosting sewer rates for city residents by 6 percent a year for five years. The average bill would rise to $96 a year five years from now from $72 today.
Sheperd said the money is needed, in part because people in Northeast Ohio have cut back on water use. Sewer rates are based on meter-measured water consumption - under the assumption that water that comes out a tap then goes down the drain - so less water used means less revenue from water and sewer bills.
An eye to the environment, however, also has saved the water plants money on chlorine. In the 1970s, Lake Erie was so dirty it took 200 pounds of chlorine to clean a million gallons of water, Utilities Director Michael Konicek said.
Today, it takes just 20.
E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Phone: (216) 999-4604 )2000 THE PLAIN DEALER. Used with permission.
-- Carl Jenkins (Somewherepress@aol.com), April 16, 2000