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Water Woes Threaten Sistersville’s Future

By Staff | Dec 2, 2015

Sistersville’s Water Board is studying three options that would eliminate the city’s need to draw water from the Ohio River.

Sistersville, Wheeling and Huntington are the last remaining municipalities to take water from the river, according to Daniel Heintzman, chairman of Sistersville’s Water Board.

“We’re afraid the state is going to tell us we can’t use that water or ask us to build a new water plant,” he said.

Mayor Bill Rice recalled the blue-green algae scare in September as one but one example of why the city needs to find a new source of water. An algae bloom put water utilities on alert and made swimmers and boaters take a long hard look at the Ohio River during Labor Day weekend. “We need to get out of the river too many things can happen,” Rice said.

Option A would be to replace the city’s 19th century water plant with a new facility that would cost more than $7 million. Heintzman called this option too expensive and that it might lead to a spike in water/sewer rates.

“Sistersville has been losing population, so it is not really feasible to build a new water plant,” he said. “The money is not there.”

Rice said the city could borrow up to $3.5 million before it would need to raise water/sewer rates. If the city pursued a new water plant, he said, rate hikes would be necessary to pay for the remaining $3.7 million balance needed to build a new water plant.

“I do not think we as taxpayers can afford that jump in our bill,” Rice said.

Option B would be to branch out underneath the Ohio River so as to connect with the Monroe County Water Authority. Heintzman said it would be hard to detect or repair any leaks from a pipe crossing the Ohio River. Rice said meetings with Monroe County didn’t go anywhere, so City Hall and the Water Board approached the Tyler County Public Service District (PSD).

Option C would be to connect with the Tyler PSD, who would become the primary water provider for the city.

“At this time I am very happy with the progress we are making with them and it looks like it will be a project we can get started in the near future,” Rice said.

Heintzman said at this point, option B appears to be the best for two reasons. First, there is an existing water line though it isn’t being utilized between Sistersville and Tyler PSD. And Tyler PSD offers the potential for three days worth of water storage if needed, he said.

“We are on the right track if we decide to push toward an agreement with the Tyler County Public Service District,” Heintzman said.

Rice said in order to provide water to Sistersville, Tyler PSD would have to drill an extra well.

But if the city were to connect with Tyler PSD, Heintzman said, it would have to shore up its water loss rate estimated to be between 30 percent and 50 percent.

High water loss rates like this are reasonably common through small to medium sized water systems across the state. The state’s Public Service Commission’s (PSC) standards require that utilities’ “unaccounted for” lost water is no more than 15 percent of the total water pumped.

Nearly 65 percent of water utilities in the state are not compliant with the West Virginia Public Service Commission’s standards for acceptable amounts of water loss, according to a Charleston Gazette-Mail analysis of annual reports submitted to the PSC. There are 388 water utilities in West Virginia, according to PSC records.

Heintzman said in order to connect with the Tyler PSD, the city would have to reduce its water loss rate to 15 percent so as to comply with state standards.

Rice said connecting Sistersville to Tyler PSD would cost up to $3.5 million. He said preliminary estimates indicate it would cost Sistersville $2 million to hook-up to the Tyler PSD. He said after the hook-up expense, the city would borrow up to $1.5 million for leaky water line repairs. Rice said unfortunately, $1.5 million is not enough to repair as many water lines as he would like . However, Rice said, the city would look at making repairs in the oldest part of town, the Fourth Ward, where the most leaks have been reported.

Rice said borrowing up to $3.5 million would not require water rate increases.

“I have been told by the Mid Ohio Valley Regional Council that we can borrow up to $3.5 million before we will have to raise our current rates,” he said.

Rice said city engineers and Tyler PSD engineers are working together to solve any issues that may arise from any merger. Heintzman said Tyler PSD is willing to sell Sistersville 200,000 gallons of water per day, so the city seeks to reduce its usage from 300,000 gallons per day.

Rice added, “We have to get our water loss under control and keep our pumping under 200,000 gallons of water per day.”

Connecting Sistersville to the Tyler PSD is a sound financial decision.

“I just think it makes good business sense to pursue this project until it becomes a reality,” Rice said.

The Water Board will have a meeting at 7 p.m. Monday at City Hall.