October 8, 2013

Editorial: Columbia failed public by running water, sewer system in ground

WATER AND sewer lines are supposed to be buried, but the extent to which Columbia has run its utilities into the ground is inexcusable.

WATER AND sewer lines are supposed to be buried, but the extent to which Columbia has run its utilities into the ground is inexcusable.

The spill-prone sewer system is in such poor condition that it has become a constant threat to our rivers. So much so that the federal government has fined the city, ordered it to clean the pollution out of local tributaries and demanded hundreds of millions of dollars in upgrades.

Frankly, it is disconcerting that the Environmental Protection Agency had to intervene at all. Surely our capital city, which owns the largest sewage plant and one of the largest collection systems in the state, has the knowledge and resources to deliver high-quality service in a safe, responsible, environmentally friendly manner.

The problem is that city officials have been so busy dipping into the water and sewer fund to pay for unrelated services and pet projects that they have failed to exercise good stewardship. Instead of spending as much money as needed to ensure the utilities remained in tip-top shape, they allowed them to become old and dilapidated. From 1999 to 2010, Columbia officials diverted some $79 million away from the utility fund.

The city sure could use that money now. Under a binding agreement with the EPA, Columbia must pay a fine of nearly $500,000 for a series of sewer spills and pollution-law violations over the past five years. It also must spend $1 million for clean up along the Broad and Congaree rivers. More importantly, city officials say they will have to spend $750 million on upgrades to the sewer system over the next decade.

While the agreement focuses on the sewer system, the water system also is in desperate shape. City officials had planned to spend $500 million over five years on water and sewer improvements prior to the EPA’s intervention. The intent was to spend proportionately more on the water system, but the federal agreement will change that. The bottom line is that over the next decade, Columbia could spend well beyond $1 billion on its utilities.

Unfortunately, water and sewer customers will be forced to bear that financial burden, possibly facing double-digit rate increases annually for years to come.

We can’t help but wonder whether this matter would have been as grave — or even a problem at all — if the city had focused on improving the system rather than siphoning money out of the fund. What if the $5 million that the city continues to transfer to the general fund annually had been used to maintain the system all these years?

City officials long have contended that Columbia citizens own the water and sewer systems and should benefit from their profits. We have no problem with that — as long as the utilities’ needs are cared for first. And they weren’t. It is evident that transfers from the fund were detrimental to those systems.

Once again, we urge City Council to end these transfers. We know they can’t be stopped cold turkey; city officials must devise a plan to wean the general fund off that money over the next few years.

No, that alone won’t cover the cost of the upgrades. But it would reduce consumers’ burden and send a message that it’s not the city’s intent to gouge customers. Given the inevitable rate increases, that is the least city officials can do.

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