With our water bills about to go up a hefty 28.2 percent over six years - on top of a 33 percent price hike just a few short years ago in 2010 - you'd think Duluth and Duluth-area residents would be splashing mad. You'd think they'd be packing public meetings.
But only about 20 people attended a chamber-sponsored public forum this week on the proposed rate hike - and at least three of them were city leaders there to explain while another handful were Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce officials there to host and several more were media types on hand to report.
Nonetheless, it easily was the best-attended public gathering so far on the water-rate increase proposed in May by the Duluth Public Utilities Commission. Two previous public meetings attracted a grand total of three citizens.
"All we can do is provide the opportunity" for water users to learn more and to weigh in, chamber President and CEO David Ross said at the forum Tuesday morning at Valentini's restaurant on London Road. "This is a big deal."
It really is, even if Duluthians aren't taking notice. In addition to water system maintenance needs - some planned for and others that pop up unexpectedly - water pipes in Duluth are breaking or springing leaks nearly 300 times a year. And each time costs about $7,000 to fix, so that's nearly $2 million a year in spending on pipes. Back in the 1970s we had maybe three to five leaks or breaks a year, Eric Shaffer, Duluth's chief engineer of utilities, said at the forum.
The simple reality: our pipes are aging, rapidly, now. They're breaking down and in need of replacement, also now. Cast-iron water pipes dating back to the 1880s and 1890s were expected to last about 120 to 130 years. They're coming to the ends of their lives. Pipes installed in the 1910s had expected lifespans of about 100 years. That's coming to an end, too. And pipes put in in the 1960s and 1970s were expected to need replacement within about 50 to 60 years, which also is now.
Making matters worse, ductile iron pipes installed in Duluth in the 1990s proved to be incompatible with our clay soils. They're corroding and failing prematurely, Shaffer has said.
The Public Utilities Commission's proposal isn't even enough to really tackle the issue. But it would put the Duluth water utility's annual capital budget at $5 million, about double what it is now, and enough for the city to at least keep pace with problems. Also, it's a rate increase most Duluth-area water users should be able to absorb.
And maybe that's why they're not turning out in droves, because the proposal seems reasonable and necessary.
"We have a lot of low-income ratepayers in the system, and we have to be very thoughtful about those payers," said Jennifer Julsrud, vice president of the Duluth Public Utilities Commission. "We don't want to overburden people. ... (In addition), we have heard repeatedly from the business community that they want to be able to plan for this and budget for it, for any kind of rate increase. They want it spread out and predictable over a number of years. And so that's kind of what we've done."
"If I was in charge of the city and it was up to me," Shaffer said, "I would have said we need $10 million a year for 10 years to put $100 million into the water system. But the reality is people in Duluth and in the county have only so much money. ... If we can get $5 million a year, we should be able to get to our (goal of) four miles a year of pipe (replacement). ... Any year we don't put in four miles of pipe, the city is going backwards."
Duluth has had a comprehensive water system plan since about 2000. It prioritizes replacing pipes that are breaking most frequently, and it coordinates pipe work with road construction to reduce costs. As the worst pipes are replaced, it would make sense that annual maintenance costs will go down.
Users of Duluth's municipal water system will have at least two more opportunities to weigh in on the proposed rate hike prior to a final vote by the City Council. That vote is expected this fall, Jim Benning, Duluth's director of public works and utilities, told News Tribune Editorial Board members last month. Those additional public hearings aren't scheduled yet.
If approved, the first of the annual rate increases would take effect Jan. 1. Water users would be wise not to wait until then to engage on the issue or to be part of the conversation.