The Ottumwa Courier

Local News

March 16, 2012

Water bill increase in limbo

Skyrocketing infrastructure costs could fall on consumers

OTTUMWA — Water bills could be on the rise.

“It’s going to take $1 trillion over the next 25 years throughout the [United States] to maintain our current levels of water service, and we’re obviously part of that,” said Mike Heffernan, general manager of Ottumwa Water Works and Hydro, referring to a study published by the American Water Works Association.

The study found that America’s aging water infrastructure systems need a large amount of repair and expansion, the cost of which would most likely fall on consumers.

“Our water plant is 50 years old, which is a typical life cycle of a water plant,” Heffernan said. “But we had a study done two years ago and it looks like for the most part it will last 20 more years.”

A structural analysis showed the Ottumwa Hydro-Electric Dam is still structurally sound, therefore Heffernan and staff are re-evaluating how to go about refurbishing requirements from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

“Probably the biggest issue right now is the hydro-electric dam, which is covered by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission,” he said. “They grant us a license to operate the dam and hydro-electric plant.

as part of that license they approved a couple years ago, they want us to go through and refurbish it.”

So far, the department refurbished one of the eight gates last year, which cost $700,000 in engineering and construction costs alone.

“But if you multiply that, it would cost over $6 million by the time we do the whole thing, so that’s causing us our biggest financial concern right now,” he said.

And the department doesn’t have that kind of money, as it only brings in around $5 million per year in water bills. They have discussed a possible 5 percent annual increase over the next several years to keep up with the costs of refurbishing the dam and continuing pipe repair.

It’s possible the first increase would happen July 1, though Heffernan said no action has yet been taken.

“Seventy percent of our water pipes in the ground are over 60 years old and there are 150 miles of pipe in the system,” he said.

The department is replacing a mile of pipe per year, but at that rate, it would take 150 years to replace all of the pipes, which the system can’t take, he said.

“We’re trying to manage the cost of those projects as best we can without doing a significant rate increase like 50 percent,” Heffernan said, which Ames residents will see in their near future.

The city of Ames announced the building of a new water plant, which will result in a 10 percent water bill increase every year for the next five years.

“The trend in the state of Iowa the last few years has been an average rate increase of 6.5 percent, so we’re in the range of what everyone else is up against,” he said.

But communities across the nation are feeling the pressure, especially in the Midwest, as the freeze/thaw cycle and drastic temperature changes are hard on water systems, Heffernan said.

“Nationwide, it’s a huge problem, so I don’t know if we’re in any worse shape than other areas,” he said.

Web extra:

The American Water Works Association study, “Buried No Longer: Confronting America’s Water Infrastructure Challenge,” can be viewed on the internet at

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