Archive for Wednesday, January 30, 2002

Rural water remains at issue

January 30, 2002

Anyone who has recently tried to gain access to rural water in the area north of Baldwin has found it is no easy task.

That is because Rural Water District No. 4 has capped the number of requests for new water meters at 100, and currently will not accept any more applications. This backlog is a result of the contract RWD 4 made with the City of Lawrence in 1975.

In the contract, RWD 4 agreed to pay Lawrence to treat water for them in the Lawrence treatment facility. RWD 4 also agreed to purchase a maximum of 800 water meters from the city with a one percent annual growth (about eight new meters per year) once that limit is reached. Growth in the district caused that limit to be met sooner than expected, and the current limits do not allow RWD 4 to accommodate the many who wish to build new homes in the area.

RWD 4 began negotiations with Lawrence in 1992 for an unlimited supply of water meters and a second master meter to deliver water to the district. However, talks broke down when Lawrence refused RWD 4's demand for unlimited meters.

Mike Wildgen, city manager for Lawrence, said Lawrence must consider its own needs first, and the limits of RWD 4's contract should come as no surprise.

"Our first priority is the citizens of Lawrence, and to make sure we have capacity in our plant," Wildgen said. "They were very aware of those limits when they signed those contracts."

He added that although Lawrence presently has excess capacity in its plant and is adding more, capacity is still a concern for them. He said Lawrence's facilities could handle the demand of rural water districts, but there were other issues to deal with.

"We are adding 5 million gallons per day, so the answer is probably yes, but again the question is who does that water go to?" he said. "We have to look at where our growth is going to be."

Wildgen pointed to re-negotiated contracts with other rural water districts as a model for what they had proposed during meetings with RWD 4 officials.

"We would be willing to negotiate with them (RWD 4), and that's what we did with (rural water districts) 2 and 5, but they have walked away from it," he said. "They chose to look elsewhere, and that was their choice."

RWD 2 and 5 successfully negotiated slightly higher percentages of meter growth. Dave McFarlane, former board member for RWD 4, said there were other factors that lead to their refusal of a similar contract.

"Rural Water District 4 did not accept it, because there were extreme restrictions in the new contracts," said McFarlane.

Those restrictions prohibit RWD 2 and 5 from seeking a source other than Lawrence to provide their water. RWD 4 has no such clause in its contract.

McFarlane said those types of restrictions are designed to allow Lawrence to control growth in the county without creating appropriate zoning laws. He said by limiting the number of meters Lawrence can curtail new construction and development in the districts.

"They made no bones about it," said McFarlane. "They wanted to control rural growth."

Wildgen denies that Lawrence is attempting to dictate development in the county.

"To say it has been an agenda item, to say that we are purposely trying to do that would be inaccurate," he said.

However, in a 1992 letter from Wildgen to the mayor and city commission of Lawrence, he said, "Allowing unchecked meter growth in rural water districts contradicts the principle that the future growth in Douglas County should be largely concentrated in incorporated communities of Douglas County."

According to Scott Schultz, manager for RWD 4, whether Lawrence is trying to control rural growth is not the issue.

"The key issue is that it is our job to secure enough water to provide for our region, and we have not done that yet," Schultz said.

He added that although RWD 4 had enough untreated water to meet its needs, he did not foresee Lawrence treating all that they required in the near future. Instead, he said it was looking at both short and long term solutions.

In the short term, RWD 4 may begin to purchase treated water from Johnson County Rural Water District No. 6. It already buys water from Baldwin City. Baldwin has its water treated by Lawrence, but it are not faced with the same meter restrictions as the rural water districts.

Larry Paine, city administrator for Baldwin, said the contract with RWD 4 benefited both parties.

"We have a contract with Water District 4 to provide water to the area three miles north of 56 highway, and Water District 4 provides a pressure boost to the Signal Oaks development," Paine said.

Baldwin currently sells about 50 percent of the water it gets from Lawrence to RWD 4, Wellsville and Edgerton. Paine said Baldwin is not taking its excess water supplies for granted, and has joined in a cooperative with RWD 4, Lawrence and 11 other members in Johnson, Franklin and Miami counties.

The group, named the Quad Counties Water Cooperative, has banded together in order to fund a study into possible solutions to water concerns.

Paine said the study, which is due out in March, could be a big help to the members, but it was not the group's intention to make current contracts obsolete.

"The Quad Counties Water Cooperative's goal is to supplement existing contracts, not replace existing contracts," he said. "We are going to want to have access to water from Lawrence for the citizens of Baldwin."

Commenting has been disabled for this item.