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Berkeley Springs faces water woes

February 15, 2009|By TRISH RUDDER

BERKELEY SPRINGS, W.Va.-- The new pipe replacement project for the town-owned Berkeley Springs Water Department is scheduled to begin in early fall and its customers are going to foot the bill. 

For Phase 2, about 33,000 linear feet of water lines outside the town limits will be affected at an estimated cost of $4.5 million.

This is on top of a yearlong water replacement project that ended about August 2007 at a cost of $2.48 million and led to a 19 percent water rate increase to about 1,600 water customers.

Phase 1 replaced 98 percent of the century-old leaking pipes in town, but after that was finished, the water department was still losing more than 50 percent of its water through leaking lines outside of town.   

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Terry Largent, the department's chief water operator, said the department is constantly repairing leaks, especially during cold weather. In 2008, an average of three leaks a week were repaired.  

In order to pay for the loans for the water project and to update the department's burgeoning system, the Bath Town Council voted last June for a new flat water rate that would charge $8.77 per 1,000 gallons, which would benefit moderate rather than large water users. Every customer would pay the same rate, instead of large water users getting discounted rates. 

U.S. Silica, a large water user, filed an appeal with the West Virginia Public Service Commission and after its review, the PSC sided with the company. Last October, the Town of Bath was mandated by the PSC to charge new rates the town did not want.  

Bath Finance Committee Chairman Councilman David Crosby, who is also a member of the water committee, said the average residential water user will see about a 45 percent increase with the new mandated rate. 

"The PSC did not give us much of a justification when they chose the new water rate," Crosby said. "The PSC just made the ruling."

Crosby said in a meeting with Del. Daryl E. Cowles, R-Morgan/Hampshire, that he wants the PSC to provide more justification of the new rate increase.

Crosby said he felt the PSC model was appropriate 50 years ago but it is not now, since water is a scare resource. 

"With a flat rate of $8.77, the methodology is to treat people fairly," Crosby said. 

"The key was to try to conserve," said resident Jim Slough, who attended the meeting with Cowles.

"Our primary concern was to conserve water," Crosby said.

"The PSC has no responsibility and all the authority," Slough said. 

The new rates went into effect Oct. 18, but will not be reflected on the bills until April, said Town Clerk Margie McCumbee Allgyer.  

If an average quarterly bill is $80, it will jump to more than $100, Crosby said. 

He said the water department will have to increase the water rates again within a year because the mandated increase by the PSC will not pay for the upgrades. Crosby said the increase will be more than 20 percent. 

More than 300 customers are waiting for new water hookups but cannot be accommodated until the moratorium is lifted. A moratorium on new taps went into effect in 2005 because the water department was pumping at a capacity above the PSC regulation.  

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