All around town dirt is flying for new infrastructure projects: new pipes being set in trenches and water towers and pumps being replaced.

To find out who is footing the bill for that progress, take a look at a utility bill.

Starting this week, the typical Waco resident will see a monthly increase of $3.26 for water and sewer to help pay for improvements that are part of a 10-year master plan. And more increases are planned in each of the remaining seven years of that $270 million campaign.

The city will sell some $48.6 million in utility bonds this month to pay for capital improvement projects ranging from water line replacements in downtown alleys to lift stations and sewer lines in the Highway 84 growth corridor. To qualify for the bond, all the projects have to have a life expectancy of at least 20 years, which is the lifespan of the bond.

Utility director Lisa Tyer said the city is fighting a two-front battle: replacing infrastructure that has outlived its useful life while keeping up with the demands of growth.

“We are repairing a lot of bad lines up there,” Tyer said. “You can’t just sit back and wait for it to fail. … We have to consider expansion in the middle of this, because we’re growing. I can’t afford to not have water at the correct pressure in a growth area because we haven’t enlarged a line.”

For a typical in-city resident using 8,000 gallons of water a month, the new rates would increase water bills from $39.95 to $41.59. Sewer bills would increase from $36.87 to $38.49 for in-city customers with a typical usage of 5,000 gallons a month.

Out-of-city customers of Waco would see their combined water and sewer bills increase by $2.72 to $95.18, based on the same usage rates.

Those increases are not strictly dedicated to this year’s bonded projects but are part of a planned gradual rate increase plan for a multitude of projects that can take several years to design and build.

The city is already deep into some major construction projects, including the $11 million replacement of the century-old Hillcrest ground storage tank and the $3.3 million replacement of the Owen Lane water tower. Construction work will start soon on a 30-inch-diameter water transmission line from the Riverside Treatment Plant to the Gholson Road storage tank at a cost of $10.8 million. Also this year, the city will roll out a $12 million automated meter reading system.

This year’s bond, combined with $2.5 million in cash, will fund $21.1 million of water projects and almost $30 million of wastewater projects.

New projects include $7 million of miscellaneous water system improvements that are mostly aimed at lines around town with persistent leaks and maintenance problems, and $3 million for miscellaneous sewer line improvements.

“We are going to look at where we are doing a lot of maintenance,” Tyer said. “Because we keep a work order for every action we take, we have a good measure of where we are putting a lot of time and money into a line that maybe we should go ahead and replace.”

Other major utility projects include:

  • $5.7 million for improvements to Riverside Treatment Plant
  • $2 million to replace water lines in “Banker’s Alley” between Washington and Austin Avenues, from Fourth to Ninth streets. Utility officials say those aging lines are difficult to service because the alley is crowded with wires and pipes. “Every time there’s a line break, you can’t bring in a bulldozer,” Tyer said. “Whenever we have a problem it tends to affect several side streets.”
  • $1.5 million for Waco’s share of water lines running from Waco and Woodway to McGregor
  • $6 million for Waco’s share of a major upgrade to the Waco Metropolitan Area Regional Sewerage System plant, including electrical system replacement
  • $1.5 million to paint and coat the Ritchie Road water tower inside and out
  • $3 million for sewer lines and a lift station for the Highway 84 corridor
  • $17 million for the first phase of the Brazos Basin project, which will help the city shift sewer flow away from the west bank of the Brazos River, where spills pose a river pollution risk.

Next year, city officials are proposing more than $60 million of additional water and sewer projects, including $4.5 million for safety improvements to the Lake Brazos dam.

Tyer said the 10-year water and sewer plan marks a shift in the city’s priorities. A couple of decades ago, the city was focused on fighting upstream pollution threats, building a new pretreatment plant to improve quality, expanding Lake Waco and building a new dam on the Brazos.

The current plan focuses more on storage and transmission, as well as the never-ending struggle to replace obsolete infrastructure.

“We have a system with a normal design life of 50 years,” Tyer said. “That means you should be replacing about 1/50th of your system every year.”

Deputy City Manager Wiley Stem III, who will become city manager this year, said water and sewer customers will see a payoff in a more reliable water system.

“What we’re aiming for is resiliency, so if a part fails, you’ve got something else that can take its place,” Stem said.

J.B. Smith is the the Tribune-Herald managing editor. A native of Sulphur Springs, he attended Southwestern University and joined the Tribune-Herald in 1997. He and his wife, Bethany, live in Waco and have two children.

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