Water and sewer rate hikes are likely in 2016 for Waco customers, and many more will be needed during the next decade to fund $245 million in needed improvements, city staff said this week.
Their 10-year master plan would require a bond issue next year to upgrade water treatment plants and extend lines to accommodate new growth in suburban Waco.
But the focus is on replacing aging infrastructure, such as waterlines, storage tanks and sewer lift stations, some of which date back to before World War II.
“I think we’re going to have to face the reality that we’re going to have to put more money into the replacement of pipes,” City Manager Dale Fisseler said. “This is what cities do to promote economic development. They fix the streets and the pipes.”
The utility bond, which would not require an election, could hike the average residential monthly bill from $62.77 to $65.49 starting Jan. 1. That is an increase of $2.72, or 4.2 percent.
Within 10 years, the typical bill could climb to $91.50 a month — a 46 percent increase over today.
In a discussion at Waco City Council’s budget and audit committee meeting Tuesday, Mayor Malcolm Duncan Jr. said the city has fallen behind on its infrastructure.
“It’s a symptom of underinvestment all these years,” he said. “Going forward, we need a more disciplined pattern of investment.”
Fisseler said three major utility emergencies in this budget year have shown the vulnerability of the systems.
Late last year, a raw waterline broke at the Mount Carmel Treatment Plant, causing crews to scramble to prevent a situation that would require water rationing. This spring, a major water pipe at the Lake Shore Drive bridge over Landon Branch had to be replaced.
In May, a buried concrete sewer line that carries most of Waco’s sewage to the central treatment plant collapsed from deterioration caused by corrosive sewer gases.
Since Jan. 1, water leaks have caused the city to make 460 cuts in city streets.
Fisseler said most of the breaks have affected a few blocks, but the city is at risk of failures that could leave large sections of town without service.
“We’re fortunate,” he said. “I don’t think we can continue in this direction. I’m very surprised at how fragile the water system is.”
Among the projects in the master plan is the replacement of two large ground storage tanks that hold millions of gallons of water. The tanks hold treated water until it can be pumped to water towers.
One of the tanks, next to Crestview Elementary School, was built in 1949 and has significant and chronic leaks.
Another at North 32nd Street and Lyle Avenue, next to the Waco Police Department tower, was built in 1929 to hold water from the Riverside Treatment Plant and pump it to the Park Lake Drive water tower.
The concrete-lined, rectangular tank still holds, but the pitted concrete is difficult to clean, and some joints are made out of redwood. Divers occasionally have to go inside the enclosed structure to clean it.
Each of the ground storage tanks will cost $15.7 million to replace, according to the master plan.
The plan includes $35 million to replace the sewer lift and transfer stations along La Salle Avenue that together carry most of Greater Waco’s sewage.
Another $1.3 million will add another 72-inch raw waterline behind the Lake Waco Dam to convey water to the Dissolved Air Flotation pretreatment plant. Currently, there is only one such pipe, and its failure would create a crisis for the water treatment system.
The plan calls for major crosstown water pipes to the China Spring and Southwest Waco areas, as well as major and minor pipe replacement throughout the older parts of town.
Fisseler told council members this week that the recent rains showed how the inner city’s sewer system, made largely of leaky clay pipes, can get loaded with stormwater.
“It was never intended to be watertight,” he said. “It’s an old system that’s just full of leaks. Plastic pipe will reduce the amount of water getting into the system.”
He said the master plan also will benefit streets, because water pipes along streets will be timed with street repair and reconstruction projects.
The good news is that the city of Waco has plenty of water because of the 2003 expansion of Lake Waco, Assistant City Manager Wiley Stem told the council committee Tuesday. Also, its treatment capacity is already well beyond the city’s peak demand of 50 million gallons per day.
“We can make 90 million gallons of water a day,” he said. “With these improvements, we can deliver 90 million gallons a day.”
With the council’s approval, the rate hike and bond issue for the improvements would begin in January.
Based on a new cost of service study by New Gen Strategies, the council also will consider adjusting how water rates are calculated.
The study found that the city’s water revenues fluctuate too much because they give too much weight to “volumetric” use; that is, how much water a customer uses each month rather than a fixed base rate.
The consultant recommended raising the base rate from 30 percent to 77 percent of a typical customer’s water bill. Fisseler said the city will move in that direction during the next decade.
Councilwoman Alice Rodriguez said she expects the rate increases will bring some customer complaints, especially from those on fixed incomes. But she said the increases will be palatable “as long as people can see that they’re getting something back for what they’re paying.”
Fisseler said the city needs to make that clear to customers.
“We’ve got to be really good at explaining this,” he said.