Paul Currier knows a little something about water. The longtime Rifle resident is the owner of Water Resource Consultants, LLC, and has more than 30 years experience with water supply planning, rate analysis, water rights and the political, engineering and permitting tasks water suppliers and municipalities in three states require.
So when he says the city of Rifle's plans to sharply raise water rates, seek a half-cent sales tax hike and a $25.5 million loan from the Colorado Water and Power Development Authority to build a new state-of-the-art water treatment plant are all wet, he might have a good handle on the issue.
"The question they have to ask is how do they pay for a champagne system on a beer budget," Currier said in a recent interview. "I don't totally disagree with the intent to build a champagne system, but according to the city water quality report for 2011, they did meet standards and requirements" that year.
While Currier said he believes city officials who say the Graham Mesa plant is outdated and not able to keep up with demands, "I think there are other ways around those problems."
Water treatment systems similar to those used by the U.S. military in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere could treat Rifle's water, if the Graham Mesa plant failed, Currier said.
When water rates were proposed to go up in other municipalities were he has worked, Currier said the backlash was not as sharp.
"I can see where this is too big a deal for the average Rifle citizen to just throw $500 out the door" in new water rates, Currier said.
He also pointed out if the city had annually increased water rates five percent a year 30 years ago, as they have in recent years, "We wouldn't be in this boat."
Currier also said not many people are talking about how the city's sewer rates are linked to water usage. If water usage drops, so will sewer revenue, Currier noted.
Currier was among the nearly 100 people who signed up at a May 30 public meeting the city held to explain the need for a new plant and answer questions. The city also received 108 written comments to present to city council. Among some of the meeting highlights were:
• The city has seen a three percent increase in water demand each summer, often approaching the capacity of the Graham Mesa plant, according to City Manger John Hier.
• Most city parks and ballfields, along with Rose Hill Cemetery, use raw water for irrigation, Hier said. Rifle High School uses some raw water, but Hier said it is still a large user of treated city water for irrigation.
• The new plant will meet current and anticipated federal water quality regulations, Hier said, and part of the plant can be taken off-line for maintenance without shutting down the entire plant. The Graham Mesa plant must be shut down for maintenance or repairs, he added.
• City staff considered a rate structure based only on water usage, without a base rate, Hier said, but city council wanted the tiered rates included.
• The city is looking into programs that offer reduced water rates based on incomes, Hier said.
• City Finance Director Charles Kelty said the city has recently sent out an average of 600 water turn off notices a year and 200 of those are actual service turn offs.
• Kelty said a raw water system would cost the city around $43.5 million to build. That would include around 60 miles of pipelines and connections to houses, he added.
• The city estimates a ten percent drop in revenue due to conservation measures taken after the new rates go into affect, Kelty said.
• Contaminants found in Colorado River water before treatment include salinity, manganese, pharmaceuticals, medications, personal care products, insect repellents, pesticides and herbicides, cosmetics, metals, hardness, soaps, an earthy, musty odor, organics and radionuclides.
• The city has spent $267,000 on repairs to the Graham Mesa plant in the last five years and the new plant is expected to be built over a two- to three-year period.
• Among the city's options to address the need for a better water treatment system were expanding the Graham Mesa plant to six million gallons a day at a cost of $23.5 million, a four million gallons a day plant and a raw water system for $43 million ($28 million for the raw water system, $15 million for the new plant), or the current choice of a new six million gallon a day plant for $25 million. That plant is expected to meet Rifle's needs through the year 2025, or a population of 14,800.
City Councilman Randy Winkler said he voted against the ordinance to fund the new plant based on timing.
"I'm totally convinced that we will need a new plant, eventually," he said. "But now is not the time, with the way the economy is and people struggling."
The two percent interest rate offered to the city by the Colorado Water and Power Development Authority "should not drive this," Winkler added.
City Councilwoman Jennifer Sanborn also said she agrees the city needs a new plant, if only to improve the "terrible" taste.
"But I didn't see enough proof that we need this extensive a system at this particular time," she said.
Sanborn also questioned if Rifle will meet the growth projections the city is using.
"This plant is heavily based on future growth, so those of us here now are being asked to pay for the invisible people," Sanborn said. "I think we should take the approach of here's what we can afford, now let's see what we can build."
Sanborn said not until the very end of the council's consideration was the proposed rate structure presented.
"To put in this sort of rate hike, while we had very little time to understand the details, I can see how it would come across as a sense of entitlement" by the city, Sanborn said.
"A sales tax alone, if it would raise enough money, would be fine," she added. "But to put community members kind of up against a wall, it's like they have a gun pointed at them. Now they have to vote yes, because they hove no choice except to pay even higher rates."
Sanborn said she would like the city to aggressively pursue a way to install and operate a raw water system, "But that would be taking a big step back. I understand that."
The next water treatment plant meeting is scheduled for June 13, with time and location to be determined.