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Updated: Thursday, 15 Nov 2012, 3:20 PM EST
Published : Friday, 13 Jul 2012, 9:49 AM EDT
FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) - The Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission (IURC) ended its hearing with Aqua Indiana by requesting that an independent contractor conduct an evaluation of Aqua Indiana's response to the pressure issues caused by the drought. The evaluation should also look at the utility's future plans to prevent similar problems.
"We heard a lot of good information about what caused the problems and the proposed solutions, but we'd like to see an outside independent expert at the expense of Aqua come in and verify what we heard today and determine if their solutions are viable," Jim Atterholt, the chairman of the IURC, told NewsChannel 15. "There have been enough concerns we're just not going to take their word for it."
During the hearing, Aqua Indiana President Tom Bruns initially was reluctant to agree to that evaluation.
"I'm going to have to get corporate approval to move forward with an expense like that, but all in all, we're open to a third party evaluations. We'll get there, it's just a matter of getting the necessary go ahead, Bruns said.
He added the cost of any evaluation would not be passed on to the customers.
When the dry conditions started in May, Aqua started to monitor its systems more closely. It did ask customers to cut back on lawn watering, but the voluntary conservation request didn't make a big dent in demand. The conservation wasn't made mandatory because Aqua has no enforcement power.
The big drop in water pressure came on June 18. Bruns called the situation the result of a "perfect storm." There was a water main break on the previous day, one well was being repaired and an influx of automatic sprinkler systems coming on over night didn't allow the elevated storage containers to refill, and that's why customers had low pressure on the morning of the 18th.
Average daily demand for Aqua Indiana is around three million gallons a day. Current usage is around six million gallons a day. While demand has spiked higher in past years, it's been for a few days at a time. This drought is creating a prolonged high demand that taxed the system.
"We haven't experienced this lengthy of a draw down period and when it hit us this year, we didn't have enough," Bruns said.
Bruns also said there are plans to activate another well to help keep up with the higher-than-normal demand in this drought. It would add half a million gallons of water a day.
"There probably wouldn't have been a glitch had it been in place, but hindsight is always 20/20," Bruns said.
Bruns also testified that had that well already been in operation, the company wouldn't have had to connect to Fort Wayne's water system. The city is currently supplying around 300,000 gallons of water a day to 1,200 Aqua Indiana customers. But, Bruns said when the well is operating in about 30 days, Aqua Indiana doesn't plan to immediately disconnect from Fort Wayne, even though the well will provide nearly double what the city is currently supplying.
"It's a good insurance policy," he said. "We don't think we would need a connection like this all the time, but this is an extraordinary year."
City of Fort Wayne representatives at the meeting said the city has the ability to supply several million gallons of water every day to the Aqua Indiana service area without compromising city supply.
"If they face additional supply or pressure problems, we're willing to assist them as much as they need to," Kumar Menon, the director of city utilities, said. "And we're also looking for a permanent solution to this. These temporary fixes, while are effective, are not a sustainable program."
Fort Wayne said around 70 percent of the Aqua Indiana customers in the Aboite Township are within the city limits.
"What people in Aqua-land pay is significantly more than Fort Wayne. In addition to complaints of quality and pressure issues, we'd like to even that out and make sure everyone pays as little as possible for the best water possible," Menon said.
The price difference, Bruns said, won't be so vast for long.
"Aqua spent a lot on capital investments and we're at a point now where we spent that money and the rates reflect that. Fort Wayne is only beginning to show rates that reflect capital investment. They're before the commission now for a 40 percent hike. Over time, the city rate will be much closer to ours," Bruns said.
Menon countered the work the city is doing is for sewer and the water rate will stay lower than Aqua's.
"On the water side, we're completely up to EPA regulations," he said.
Also at the hearing, Menon delivered a letter from Fort Wayne Mayor Tom Henry, expressing concerns about Aqua Indiana.
"For many years, residents of southwest Fort Wayne have expressed their frustrations to me about the cost and quality of the water they receive from Aqua Indiana. Over the past few years, we have received petitions from more than 20 neighborhoods representing over 2,000 households in the Aqua Indiana service area, asking to be switched to Fort Wayne City
Utility services. Additionally, over 40 different neighborhoods have contacted us expressing displeasure at Aqua Indiana’s rates and service levels, and interest in switching to City Utilities services. As Mayor, their concerns are my concerns," part of the letter read.
Bruns maintains that Aqua can supply its customers with good water.
"The suburbs gained customers and they were lost in the city," he said. "Fort Wayne is looking to add revenue and our customers are a source of that possible revenue. On the other hand, we're happy to work with Fort Wayne and have an open dialog to look at partnering arrangements."
A time frame for the independent evaluation hasn't been set yet.
Previously posted story:
Aqua Indiana officials will defend recent pressure problems in a hearing called by the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission in Indianapolis.
The IURC called for the hearing after Sen. David Long (R - Fort Wayne) sent it a letter expressing concerns about Aqua Indiana's ability to supply water to customers in southwest Allen County.
In his letter, Long acknowledges the recent drought conditions, but notes no other water utilities have been on "the verge of having their water system fail." He also questioned whether recent improvements to Aqua Indiana's system, which were the justification for increased rates, are working.
NewsChannel 15 had posed those same questions to Aqua Indiana Regional Vice President Bill Etzler on June 21. Click here for his answers.
In a response to Sen. Long's letter, Aqua Indiana said lawn watering played a significant role in the drop in water pressure at the end of June.
"The water pressure problems ... were localized to an area of higher elevation and were caused by lawn irrigation demand draining our elevated water towers during morning hours. With conservation efforts by many of our customers and the connection to the Fort Wayne water system for a portion of our service area, the low pressure problems have been resolved," the statement said.
The IURC ordered Aqua Indiana to remain hooked to the city's water until it gives word otherwise.
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