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Our view: Getting Soaked? Actually, water rate hike could be bigger

Eric Shaffer has heard the same accusing questions, again and again, for nearly a decade now, ever since he started working for the city of Duluth: Why wasn't there an effort years ago to address the city's aging, oft-rupturing water pipes? Why was it allowed to become such an emergency now?

"There was an effort," Duluth's chief engineer of utilities patiently answered in an interview this summer with members of the News Tribune Editorial Board when those same tired questions were posed. "We have addressed this before. We've been to the City Council. We've been to the (Duluth Public Utilities Commission) many times over the last 20 years, saying the same thing. 'We need a rate increase for capital improvements.'"

All of us on city water are familiar with those rate increases and our ever-growing water bills. A Duluth resident at a meeting of the Public Utilities Commission last month claimed water rates have risen 168 percent over the past 20 years.

Whether they've really gone up the reality is the funding hasn't kept up with the costs of repairing and replacing pipes nearing the ends of their lives. Water main breaks have continued to plague our city.

And now the Public Utilities Commission is asking for another increase, a real whopper this time. And while it actually won't, once again, be enough to really get control of Duluth's ongoing problem with problem pipes, it is expected to at least prevent problems from worsening.

Users of Duluth's municipally provided water have little choice but to get behind this proposal, as painful to the pocketbook as it may be. Or they could demand that even more be done.

The proposal is for a 4.7 percent annual increase over six years, meaning a 30 percent total jump in water rates by 2023. At least it'd be phased in. It'd put the Duluth water utility's annual capital budget at $5 million, about double what it is now, according to city officials.

The true need, however, really is about $10 million a year. But, "That's not realistic to the people of Duluth," Shaffer said.

"We're very sensitive about the financial burden that rate increases place on residents and on businesses, especially residents who are on fixed incomes, in the same way we are very sensitive to the impact of property levy increases," City Councilor and Public Utilities Commission member Joel Sipress said. "Staff made the persuasive case to us that anything less than $5 million a year in capital and we'll continue to get further behind. We actually want to start making progress. This is the minimum that it would take. ... If we do not do something along these lines now we are simply creating a more serious and more costly problem down the road."

There doesn't seem to be much "down the road" left. This problem is right now. Duluth's most durable cast-iron water pipes date back to the 1880s and 1890s and had expected lifespans of 120 to 130 years. That's now. In addition, pipes installed in the 1910s had expected lifespans of about 100 years. That's now, too. And pipes put in in the 1960s and 70s were expected to need replacement within about 50 to 60 years. Yep, now, also. Making matters worse, ductile iron pipes installed in Duluth in the 1990s have proven to be incompatible with our clay soils. They're corroding and failing prematurely, according to Shaffer.

Even a city councilor vowing not to support the proposed rate increase sees its necessity. Fourth District Councilor Howie Hanson's comments also are published today by the Opinion page. A more-comprehensive, more-engaging public process is needed first to gain the community's buy-in, he said.

That's on city officials to pull off — and they know it. A handful of meetings with community groups already has been held. The Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce is hosting a public forum on the rate increase at 8 a.m. on Aug. 1 at Valentini's Vicino Lago restaurant on London Road. And at least two public hearings will be scheduled prior to a final vote by the City Council, expected this fall, said Jim Benning, Duluth's director of public works and utilities.

If approved, the first of the annual rate increases would take effect Jan. 1.

Duluth's pipes are breaking or springing leaks nearly 300 times a year. Every break costs $7,000 to fix. Additional capital investment to replace aging pipes could start to reduce the frequency of breaks and leaks.

"With each water main break that we don't have, we save $7,000," Benning said.

Additionally, 15 percent of the water pumped by Duluth to customers is now being lost to leaks and breaks. That alone is costing the city $1.3 million annually, a cost that also demands to be reduced or eliminated.

"When you add together the cost of repairing the breaks the leaks and the lost water, we're spending over $3 million a year on our deteriorating water mains," Shaffer said.

"We can't wait any longer," Sipress said of the need to address so much money down the drain. "This is designed to get the capital budget to the minimum necessary to make a dent."

Unless Duluthians insist on doing more than just making a dent. That option is always there, too.