CATEGORY: EDT Editorials
Northern District Public Service Commissioner Bo Robinson warned rural water system customers Monday that they face increased rates and many of their systems need or soon will need extensive upgrades.
David Mitchell, the state health department’s water supply division chief, expanded Tuesday on his and Robinson’s press conference remarks made Monday in Jackson. Michell’s scenario should move rural water system customers and governing boards including those in Northeast Mississippi to immediately examine their billing structures and management policies.
Mitchell said many of the state’s 600 to 700 rural water systems (including some supplying small towns) have kept water prices artificially low for decades. Many systems, he said, have skimped on maintenance to hold down costs. Many, as a result, face or soon must deal with extensive upgrades and repairs to basic equipment.
The generally low cost to customers of the rural water associations (many financed by the Farmers Home Administration) has kept finances below a level that allows for repairs and upgrades, Mitchell said. He said it was his professional instinct that significant numbers of rural system customers could expect minimum charges of $20 to $25 per month when major repairs, replacements and upgrades are needed. A typical minimum charge today, he said, is $5 to $6. Some systems, he said, charge a flat rate for unlimited use. Mitchell estimated the average rural household consumption in the range of 8,000 gallons to 10,000 gallons per month.
The Legislature’s $20 million loan program for rural systems to make repairs and upgrades sounds substantial and, in fact, will be helpful as long as it lasts. Mitchell said, however, that Mississippi systems could have capital improvements costing more than $1 billion during the next few years.
Mitchell made a sensible suggestion: Raise prices incrementally in anticipation of large expenses so that customers aren’t hit in one blow with huge increases.
The concerns expressed by Robinson and Mitchell spring, in part, from “boil orders” issued during the past two years by the Mississippi Department of Public Health for scores of rural systems. The boil orders mean the department considers the water unsafe to drink unless its boiled first. Boil orders mean tests show the presence of fecal bacteria and other contaminants, or that malfunctions caused by low pressure, pump problems or well failure made water undrinkable. Many of the breakdowns indicate the problems of aging and poorly maintained systems.
Mitchell also expressed concerns about private wells too shallow for safe consumption. He said county health departments can provide help in getting private well water sampled and tested by the state. He recommends annual testing.
Mississippi, unlike some states, has abundant water, and it is a priceless resource. Mississippians face the challenge of sustaining the quality of water so that public health is maintained and the elements for growth and an improved quality of life are sustained.