Does a Source Water Protection Plan Really Cost $100,000?
29 November 2014
By David Gutman, Staff writer
Tanks at the Freedom Industries site on the Elk River are torn
down in July. A leak from the site entered West Virginia American
Water’s treatment plant on the Elk River in January, contaminating
water for about 300,000 West Virginians. Afterward, state
lawmakers told most public water systems in the state to come up
with source water protection plans, but the costs of those plans
may determine if they actually happen. How much does it cost for a
water system to study the hazards around it and make a plan for
what to do in case of disaster?
The answer could make a difference as to whether state lawmakers
follow through with their mandate that most public water systems
in West Virginia have to make such a plan. And different groups
have very different ideas about how much such plans cost.
In the wake of this year’s Kanawha Valley water crisis, the bill
passed by the Legislature last spring - unanimously, after weeks
of contentious debate - requires every public water system
(excluding those that are not influenced by surface water) in the
state to conduct such a plan.
Those water systems will have to complete their plans - called
source water protection plans - by July 2016, unless the
Legislature changes its mind.
And the more those plans cost - money that would either be passed
on to ratepayers or, if it came from the state budget, taxpayers -
the more likely the Legislature is to change its mind.
The new law - SB373 - set up a commission to study, among other
things, how much the plans will cost.
When that commission reports back to the Legislature on Dec. 15,
it is very likely to ask for a total of $12.2 million, over the
next three budget years, for water utilities to complete their
One of the commission’s sub-groups estimated that it will cost an
average of $100,000 for each of the state’s 125 affected water
utilities to complete their plans.
Amy Swann, the director of the West Virginia Rural Water
Association and a registered lobbyist, chairs the group that came
up with the cost estimate.
“We have three registered professional engineers as members of our
committee,” Swann said at the commission’s last meeting. “So I
personally feel very comfortable with the estimate that we’ve come
Swann said last week that her group tried to estimate how many
hours would be needed to make the plans - by people in positions
like project manager, specialists, engineers and technical help.
“The cost is more driven by the pure engineering analysis that has
to be done than anything else,” she said.
Swann said costs could vary widely between different utilities,
but that they felt comfortable with $100,000 as an average. Other
related estimates have come up with far different numbers.
In 2011, Tetra Tech, a multinational engineering firm with offices
in Charleston, submitted a proposal to develop source water
protection plans for West Virginia American Water Company, by far
the largest water utility in the state.
Tetra Tech gave three price options, all of which would yield a
source water protection plan.
All the price options were well below the $100,000 estimate.
For the company’s Elk River regional system - the one contaminated
by January’s chemical leak - Tetra Tech projected costs between
$13,000 and $33,000. For the company’s Huntington regional system,
Tetra Tech estimated costs between $15,000 and $42,000.
(West Virginia American did not complete the plans for the two
If the largest water utility in the state can complete source
water protection plans for a fraction of $100,000, doesn’t that
mean the commission’s cost estimate is overblown?
Not necessarily: Even though they’re both “source water protection
plans” the 2011 Tetra Tech proposals and what is required by the
Legislature are not exactly the same thing. The new plans must
include much more contingency planning then the 2011 proposals.
That includes studies on things like the feasibility of a second
water intake, more raw water storage and the possibility of
connecting with a neighboring water system.
“The original plans were focused on preventing contamination,”
said Mindy Ramsey, Tetra Tech’s director of water resources in
Charleston. “The changes to the plans now will be, OK, we want you
to think about how to prevent, but if you do experience
contamination what are you going to do about it?”
Ramsey said that with the new requirements she would expect their
cost estimates to double - which would still leave the costs for
West Virginia American’s individual systems well below the
$100,000 mark.She said that Tetra Tech completed about 100 source
water protection plans between 2009 and 2012 - costing between
$6,000 and $14,000 - and that the utilities that did those would
have a jump-start on the new plans.
The Region 1 Planning and Development Council is one of 11 such
councils around the state that provide planning services (housing,
health, infrastructure, etc.) to municipalities. Region 1
represents McDowell, Mercer, Monroe, Raleigh, Summers and Wyoming
counties. It is the first region to begin working to solicit bids
for the new plans and develop cost estimates.
“We’re running at right about $50,000 per plan,” said Cori
Edwards, a project manager for Region 1. Edwards said that they
had received three bids at around that price to do a plan for the
McDowell County Public Service District.
The Morgantown Utility Board, the second-largest water utility in
the state, is well ahead of other utilities, having already begun
making its plan.
Timothy Ball, the board’s general manager, estimated the cost of
making the plan at about $125,000, but said Morgantown’s plan goes
well beyond the requirements of SB373.
The law requires utilities to catalog all possible sources of
significant water contamination within a specified “zone of
critical concern,” that basically includes contaminants that are
directly upstream from a water source.
Morgantown is doing much more, cataloging all possible
contaminants within the city’s watershed, an area that stretches
to Elkins and includes eight to 10 counties.
Ball estimates that the law requires them to catalog about 2,500
possible contamination sources and they’re trying to catalog
Swann noted that the driving factor behind costs wasn’t
necessarily the size of a system, but the complexity of it. A
system covering more varied terrain will have more pressure zones
and will require a more complicated plan.
“A source water protection plan is not like an income tax form, it
varies and, accordingly, costs vary,” she said. “You just be sure
to tell the governor and the Legislature to print some money to
make this happen.”
Reach David Gutman at email@example.com, 304-348-5119 or
follow @davidlgutman on Twitter.