City water customers get break in ’14

Posted: January 14, 2014

The Winchester Star

WINCHESTER — After enduring rate hikes each of the last two years, city water and sewer customers won’t be asked to pay more for the services in 2014.

Perry Eisenach, Winchester’s public services director, said the 14 percent increases customers were hit with in 2012 and 2013 won’t be repeated this year.

But how long the rates will remain stable is unknown. Eisenach said water and sewer pipes in the city still need to be replaced.

“We still have a lot of old water mains,” he said. “Last week alone we had 10 water main breaks. The reason is those old water mains are very brittle, and that’s what happens when you have changing temperatures.”

The 14 percent increases went into effect on June 1 of 2012 and 2013, respectively.

They were imposed to cover the cost of borrowing $21.5 million to pay for the final phase of water treatment plant upgrades and infrastructure projects on Amherst Street, the Loudoun Street Mall/Indian Alley and in the North End.

City Council is studying the potential imposition of a stormwater utility to cover Winchester’s cost of meeting unfunded federal and state mandates related to runoff pollution abatement, and if approved that fee might be tacked on to utility bills. However, the timetable under consideration doesn’t call for billing to begin until May 2015.

Winchester has the third oldest water delivery system in the nation, a consultant concluded in 2007, trailing only Allentown, Pa., and Philadelphia.

Since 2008, about 10.2 miles of water line has been replaced in various projects. However, that’s less than one-tenth of the 125 miles of pipe that make up the system.

The city in part has had to make up for past years in which old lines weren’t replaced. Eisenach noted that if two miles were replaced annually, it would take more than 60 years to overhaul the system completely.

“Generally speaking,” he said, “we need to continue with projects every year.”

No water and sewer pipe replacement work is scheduled to be done, but three projects are on the horizon.

In 2015, the city plans to replace lines along South Kent Street between Cork Street and Millwood Avenue. Two projects are on the drawing board for 2016 — South Loudoun Street between Cork and Gerrard streets and North Loudoun between Fairfax Lane and Wyck Street.

It’s too early to know whether any rate increases will be needed to cover the cost of those projects, Eisenach said, but the worst of the hikes should be behind city water customers.

“I think it’s certainly safe to say that if there are rate increases in the future,” he said, “they will not be nearly as large as they have been the past few years.

“Our capital expenditures over the last five years have been significant. We really tackled the more difficult, more expensive projects.”

The recently completed upgrades at the Percy D. Miller Water Treatment Plant in northwestern Warren County should be all the work needed there “for a significant amount of time,” Eisenach said.

Also, a waste-to-energy project approved at the Opequon Water Reclamation Facility off Berryville Pike in Frederick County is expected to produce revenue eventually, resulting in sewage-treatment savings for city residents.

— Contact Vic Bradshaw at vbradshaw@winchesterstar.com