Task force con­tem­plates wa­ter sys­tem prob­lems

The Times (Northeast Benton County) - - OPINION - CE­CILE BLED­SOE Arkansas Sen­a­tor

LIT­TLE ROCK — In Arkansas there are about 649 pub­lic wa­ter as­so­ci­a­tions and 388 waste wa­ter sys­tems.

Some of those wa­ter sys­tems, es­pe­cially the smaller ones in ru­ral ar­eas, are fac­ing financial and tech­ni­cal chal­lenges that will get more dif­fi­cult in the next 10 years.

Leg­is­la­tors and rep­re­sen­ta­tives of wa­ter sys­tems dis­cussed those chal­lenges at the first meet­ing of the Wa­ter Provider Leg­isla­tive Task Force, which was cre­ated by Act 1056 of 2017. They also heard an up­date on the state’s wa­ter plan from of­fi­cials of the Arkansas Nat­u­ral Re­sources Com­mis­sion.

One of the costs of run­ning a wa­ter sys­tem is pay­ing a qual­i­fied wa­ter op­er­a­tor with the tech­ni­cal ex­per­tise re­quired to keep the wa­ter clean and the equip­ment in re­pair. Task Force mem­bers es­ti­mated that cur­rently, the av­er­age age of op­er­a­tors is from 55 to 65 years old.

When wa­ter sys­tems have to re­place op­er­a­tors in the next 10 years and there­after, there will not be enough avail­able peo­ple with the tech­ni­cal qual­i­fi­ca­tions re­quired, and many small wa­ter sys­tems will not be able to pay the salaries needed to keep them on staff.

Small sys­tems have to com­ply with the same reg­u­la­tions as larger, ur­ban sys­tems with thou­sands of cus­tomers.

A large pro­por­tion of the pipes now in use were orig­i­nally in­stalled in the 1960s. When they need to be re­placed, the cost largely falls on ratepay­ers, although some grant money is avail­able.

Mem­bers of the Task Force asked about the pos­si­bil­ity of re­gion­al­iza­tion as a method of gain­ing ef­fi­cien­cies of vol­ume.

Com­bin­ing small sys­tems into larger ones could have po­lit­i­cal con­se­quences, es­pe­cially in ar­eas where res­i­dents place a pri­or­ity on lo­cal con­trol. If the state has to step in with financial help to sub­si­dize the salaries of tech­ni­cal op­er­a­tors at smaller sys­tems, lo­cal con­trol could be di­min­ished. Act 1056 lists some stan­dards that the leg­is­la­ture in­tends to re­quire of lo­cal wa­ter providers, such as their obli­ga­tion to con­nect and fairly charge for wa­ter pro­vided within their char­ter area.

Wa­ter sys­tems in ar­eas that are los­ing pop­u­la­tion face the prob­lem of higher costs per cus­tomer. At some point they will have to de­ter­mine how much peo­ple are will­ing to pay on their monthly wa­ter bills.

The Task Force will work on those and other is­sues and re­port to the leg­is­la­ture in time for the 2019 reg­u­lar ses­sion.

De­mand for clean wa­ter is go­ing up, and over­all Arkansas is not lack­ing in wa­ter re­sources. The chal­lenge is get­ting wa­ter from where it is abun­dant to where it is most needed. The cur­rent de­mand for wa­ter in Arkansas is 11 bil­lion gal­lons a day.

Gen­eral obli­ga­tion bonds are a source of fi­nanc­ing for wa­ter sys­tems. The Nat­u­ral Re­sources Com­mis­sion es­ti­mated that be­tween now and 2024, wa­ter sys­tems will need to re­place $5.74 bil­lion in equip­ment and waste wa­ter sys­tems will need to re­place $3.76 bil­lion in in­fra­struc­ture.

•••

Ed­i­tor’s note: Arkansas Sen­a­tor Ce­cile Bled­soe rep­re­sents the third district. From Rogers, Sen. Bled­soe is chair of the Pub­lic Health, Wel­fare and La­bor Com­mit­tee.

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