By Michael P. Bell, Mayor
Water. We need it for every facet of our lives. In Toledo, water has been a dependable asset. We have an ample supply thanks to our proximity to Lake Erie and we’ve always had a reliable source. We take for granted that when we turn on the tap that liquid gold will flow on demand. Unfortunately that requires that we take care of the system that brings the water to our door. Historically, Toledo has not done this well, and we are now paying the price.
The Collins Park water treatment plant was built before World War II. According to recent inspections from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (Ohio EPA), “the maintenance and capital improvement needs of the City of Toledo’s public water system have been overlooked for so long that most of the equipment is aged, obsolete, (and) showing signs of frequent failure, while being expected to operate at full capacity to keep up with the demands of the system. The plant is in need of multiple expensive repairs to prevent a major failure.”
That the plant has continued to operate without crisis or major incident despite the antiquated equipment is a testament to the work of many generations of employees at Collins Park. We continue to provide high quality drinking water for all of the residents and businesses we serve. However we are now in a position that requires us to make significant improvements or face findings and orders from the Ohio EPA. These improvements will require us to pay a greater rate for our water service.
Toledo’s rates have always been affordable and they will continue to be so. The average Toledo household currently pays an average of $14.53 per month for water, $3.63 with a senior or homestead rate. By comparison, ratepayers in Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati pay $32.60, $33.35, and $25.63 per month, respectively. Detroit, MI and Fort Wayne, IN water customers currently pay $25.12 and $22.20 on average per month. Under the proposed rate structure, the average Toledo household will pay $24.93 per month by the end of 2018. That still puts Toledo’s water rates five years down the road at a level comparable what to other Midwestern communities charge currently.
We are mindful that our city continues to recover from the recession. Both my administration and members of City Council have heard the concerns of Toledo’s residents and we’ve worked to maintain services that our taxpayers expect and deserve without raising taxes and fees. Additionally, working with city council and community partners, the Department of Public Utilities has undertaken a performance audit to find greater efficiencies in their operations. However Toledo’s water system is not an issue that can continue to be ignored or the repairs delayed. The ultimate cost of doing so to our community would be devastating.
Collins Park has served Toledo well for over 70 years but was built long before our water system served the greater northwest Ohio region. As a result the necessary redundancies needed as a back up to serve the expanded service area in 2013 are no longer in place to ensure that if any part of the system goes down there is sufficient capacity to continue to serve the demand for water. In total, these upgrades and fail-safes will require a total investment of $314 million over the five-year life of the program.
The first portion of work to upgrade the system will include building two 20 million gallon basins to increase the capacity of the plant. Currently, the plant has one 80 million gallon basin and one 40 million gallon basin. At this point, both basins need to operate around the clock in unison to serve the demand of the system. Adding the additional basins ensures that we can maintain capacity of the system in the event there is a need to take either existing basin offline for repair due to failure or even for regular ongoing maintenance. These two new basins must also be constructed before other repairs can be made to the rest of the plant as they require taking existing equipment offline.
The distribution system is equally aged and requires greater investment. Currently, nearly 50% of the waterlines in Toledo date back to the 1930’s. Only 0.27% of these are replaced each year resulting in an average of 300 water main breaks annually. At this rate of replacement, a Toledo waterline would need a life expectancy of 366 years. That is not practical and will not serve the health, welfare and economic development needs of the Toledo region. This program would speed the replacement of waterlines to ensure that 1.1% of lines are replaced annually with a more practical 100-year life cycle for waterlines.
Additional improvements in this phase will also be made to the distribution system to ensure that pumps and electronic systems are updated and maintained to prevent failure to the system.
Toledo’s water system currently serves approximately 500,000 households across northwest Ohio and southeastern Michigan. The consequences of failure to the system would damage Toledo economically, threaten the health, safety and welfare of the regional population and would ruin the regional image of northwest Ohio – not just the city.
The benefits of this program are many. First and foremost we ensure the quality of the water delivered to 500,000 customers on a daily basis at an affordable rate. By 2018, city of Toledo residents will receive three gallons of water for just one penny. For homestead customers this will be four gallons for just one penny. This capital improvement program will also create jobs. Replacing waterlines and building new facilities requires many hands to accomplish the work resulting in an anticipated 683 construction jobs per year for the first five years of the program. Finally, the Toledo region’s access to water and the affordability of clean and safe water is a major selling point in marketing this city for economic development. Touting a first-class system that remains affordable and well-maintained bolsters that asset.
If you would like more information about the state of the Collins Park water treatment plant and the proposed upgrades to the water treatment and distribution system, please visit the city’s website at www.toledo.oh.gov. There is a short video tour of Collins Park and the full presentation made to Toledo city council at the committee of the whole hearing to discussion this legislation. This is not an easy issue to address and it’s not a popular proposal to bring forward. But it is our job as city leaders to correct the problem regardless of what has or hasn’t been done in the past. As we commit to that responsibility I ask for Toledo’s support in protecting this region’s health, economy and reputation.
As printed in the Toledo Free Press, April 26, 2013.