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Editorial: Water rates help cover the cost of maintenance

For the second time this year, a local community has the luxury of squabbling over water rates while more than half of the country would fight for water at almost any price – if only they could get it.

In April, the city of Spokane backed away from a rate structure adopted last year that significantly increased the water bills of heavy users during the summer irrigation season. Anger over the changes helped David Condon unseat Mary Verner as Spokane mayor.

The rates were rolled back to about what they were in 2010. Everybody’s happy. But the saturation bombing the city has endured from every passing cloud this month suggests there could be some shortfall between actual revenues and projections. The numbers were on-track through June.

Rain and revenue or not, maintenance must go on. The gusher that appeared Monday in the middle of West Houston Avenue in north Spokane may have been a fluke caused by a pressure spike, but the failed water main is a reminder that what’s out of sight cannot be out of mind.

Utilities Director Rick Romero assures that has not been the case. In fact, he says the city has scored from the state an $18 million loan at 1 percent interest that will allow crews to accelerate a six-year maintenance plan.

The city of Millwood also has its water work cut out for it, which in June prompted the City Council to hike rates 14 percent.

Now, members are contending with the push-back from citizens who aren’t reconciled to the increase, which kicked in July 1.

As in Spokane, the Millwood rate structure is tiered slightly to discourage overuse of water and to put the burden of maintaining the system on those who use it most, including the remaining parcels in that small community dedicated to agricultural use. Urban water systems are not a good fit for farms.

Officials say they will study what accommodation can be made without compromising the fair distribution of costs among all users. But they are candid about the likelihood the latest increase will not be the last.

The 14 percent bump translates into a projected $2.65 per month increase for average water users, and a balanced account for a water fund that would otherwise be $25,000 in the hole.

But the increase will be a beginning, not an end. The upgrades called for in a capital projects plan approved by the state earlier this year will require about $135,000 per year in system profits.

For solace, water users in Millwood, Spokane and customers of several other local water systems might keep two things in mind: For the near term, rates will remain a fraction of those in Boise, Tacoma and Seattle; and the water is there to be had.

The Spokane River and Spokane Valley-Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer provide as dependable a water supply as any region could hope for. Formulating rates that will keep water systems in repair is nothing compared with the challenge of balancing domestic water use against over-exploitation of that unique resource.

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