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Water, sewer upkeep for borough a must through Suez joint venture: Don Correll

Posted 10/9/19

One of the most challenging concepts to understand about the water and wastewater industry is that, in order to build a sustainable future, it is critical to expect the unexpected.

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Water, sewer upkeep for borough a must through Suez joint venture: Don Correll

A Suez above-ground water storage tank on North Union Street towers over members of a tour.
A Suez above-ground water storage tank on North Union Street towers over members of a tour.
staff photo by jason maddux
Posted

One of the most challenging concepts to understand about the water and wastewater industry is that, in order to build a sustainable future, it is critical to expect the unexpected.

Like so many U.S. municipalities, the borough of Middletown for several decades did not anticipate the infrastructure upkeep needed to provide current and future residents with safe and reliable drinking water. Wisely, the borough contracted the Middletown Water Joint Venture in 2015 to take corrective action.

That action was to remediate the long-decayed water and wastewater system with the intent of safeguarding the health and safety of the borough’s residents and protecting the environment. To do otherwise is to jeopardize the well-being of those very same residents.

Unfortunately, more recently, the borough council has chosen the latter. Despite the potential dangers of an aged water system, the council, seemingly with limited knowledge of the concession agreement’s fundamental purpose, has blocked successive attempts by the MWJV to implement its capital improvement plan for the borough. The desire to control costs for the residents of Middletown is certainly understandable.

However, despite clear defeats in federal court and a binding arbitration process, the council continues to oppose reasonable efforts made by the MWJV to invest in the borough’s crucial systems.

MWJV’s capital improvement plan is quite clear in its goals, how those goals will address past neglect of the water system, and how further delaying capital improvements endanger the environment as well as the health and safety of Middletown residents.

For example, the rehabilitation of water-storage tanks can prevent the interior coatings — which include lead and chromium — from tainting the water. The replacement of 2,500 feet of water main each year — prescribed by the concession agreement — will decrease the number of water main breaks, reduce the ongoing loss of treated water beneath the very feet of residents, ensure that high quality non-contaminated water reaches the citizens of Middletown, and ensure adequate water pressure for fire protection. And cracked wastewater lines — which are likely polluting groundwater — can be rehabilitated.

As Middletown residents are well aware, there are real costs to remedying these urgent infrastructure problems while also supporting the financial health of the borough.

The MWJV made an upfront payment of $43 million to the borough of Middletown, promised an additional $45 million in aggregate over the 50-year concession, and committed to financing an additional $83 million in capital improvements over the life of the concession agreement.

The MWJV has been very candid and transparent about the costs involved in making the capital improvements, as well as surcharges needed to offset water sales shortfalls. The MWJV has shared these details — contained in the 50-year concession agreement signed by the borough — in numerous public meetings and communications. The arbitrators brought in by both the borough and the MWJV to settle the dispute have clearly recognized the need for capital improvements moving forward as well as the terms of the contract supporting the water sales shortfall surcharge.

According to a rate survey published by the American Water Works Association, the average annual water and sewer rate increase has been in the 5.5 percent to 6 percent range nationwide for more than a decade. The Middletown system has water rates that are competitive with neighboring communities. Admittedly, the sewer rates are higher, but are a result of the size and original cost of the water treatment plant that the borough built prior to the involvement of MWJV.

Now, it is time to move ahead so that the sorely needed investment in the long-neglected water and wastewater systems can be made to protect the environment and ensure the health and safety of the borough’s residents.

Don Correll is president of the Middletown Water Joint Venture.