The Ottumwa Courier

June 13, 2013

City, water works troubles water under the bridge

Courier Staff Writer

OTTUMWA — The formerly rocky relationship between the city and Ottumwa Water Works and Hydro is now a cooperative, collaborative one, say city officials.

Communication between the two entities was strained last year after an argument at a City Council meeting led to accusations that the water works board of trustees was difficult to work with and its staff unprofessional. This prompted city and water works staff to organize more frequent meetings to re-establish lines of communication and strengthen the relationship — and it's worked, both sides say.

"I would say from a relationship standpoint, it's quite a bit better off than it was a year ago," said water works general manager Mike Heffernan. "We had a couple pretty significant issues a year ago last winter. We got by those and right now it's business as usual."

Debates about a water main by the Kohl's development and the transfer of control of Black Lake put some strain on the relationship.

"The city didn't want to relocate the water line [on Wildwood Drive]; they just wanted to cover it up when they put the new street in," Heffernan said of the Kohl's development. "Right now I think it's buried 10 to 15 feet deep and we thought it should be 5 to 6 feet deep. When they raised the street, we thought they should raise the water line up, too."

Water works also struggled with the decision to transfer control of Black Lake to the city to later be used by John Deere Ottumwa Works for its sewer separation project.

"We really didn't want to give up control because it is our third source of water, but the board did finally agree to go ahead and transfer Black Lake," he said.

After flooding washed fertilizer into Iowa's rivers, water works has had to blend river water with Ottumwa Reservoir water to battle the Des Moines River's high nitrate levels. Now, the Ottumwa Reservoir is getting low.

"So just last week we started running Black Lake water in with river water to try to extend our water supply because we don't know how long high nitrates are going to continue," he said. "But a few years from now that won't be an option for us. It's a concern that we won't have that option in the future."

Overall, Heffernan said the issues "got blown out of proportion" last year.

"We have been working with the city on a lot of things, and we will continue that," he said. "I think things are running pretty smooth right now."

City Administrator Joe Helfenberger agreed, saying the two entities now work cohesively.

"We have not had the need for as frequent meetings as we used to; they're more for informational purposes now," he said.

Today, water works and the city's public works department collaborate on street reconstruction projects whenever possible.

"Water works identified their blocks with the most water main breaks ... and we're trying to channel more money toward getting a whole block at a time reconstructed," Helfenberger said.

Water works operates autonomously, with Heffernan receiving direction from his board of trustees, which consists of five members: Skip Stevens, Teri Messerschmitt, Pete Rich, Barb Allison and Clive Parcell.

While the two entities operate independently, Helfenberger said there is now more cooperation and communication between water works and city staff.

"As we look at pursuing an improved ISO rating ... the cooperation between the city and water works is going to be critical to getting that [Class 3]," he said.

Recent cooperation has included work on North Court Street alongside Hillcrest Park (commonly referred to as Reservoir Park), where water main breaks tore up the street.

"Instead of just doing half of the street with the water main, we're looking at doing the full street," Helfenberger said. "The city will pay their share and water works will do their share, then we'll get a new block instead of cobbling something together. It makes a lot more sense to do it that way."

Past issues between the two entities needed a lot of attention, he said, and needed to be addressed quickly.

"I think those issues have gotten resolved and there's been what I consider a high level of cooperation between water works and the city as far as trying to work together on addressing both the needs of water and other city infrastructure," he said. "That's the way it should be, and we want to continue making sure we're going on that path."

The only authority the city has over water works is the mayor's appointment of members to water works' board of trustees and the City Council's approval of the organization's annual budget, "but that's somewhat of a formality," Helfenberger said.

Ottumwa is not unique in its water utility being separate from the city.

"Most of the water utilities are autonomous in Iowa," Helfenberger said. "No city in Iowa has ever successfully reincorporated a water utility back into the city, and we don't have the desire to do that right now. As long as we get cooperation and working together to look at what's in the community's best interest as we're doing projects, that's all we're looking for. And I feel we're getting that now."

— To follow reporter Chelsea Davis on Twitter, head to @ChelseaLeeDavis.