Avoid Getting Tapped Out: Pricing Strategies to Ensure Safe, Clean Water Continues to Flow

Jul 11, 2016

Shafer, Kline & Warren’s Danny Coltrane, managing director of water resources south region, offers insight into how planning and maintaining clean water systems are essential to the health and safety of communities.

People take water for granted. Every day, when the tap is turned on to fill a glass, take a shower or water a lawn, water is there. Water could be considered the original on-demand service. But this attitude can be dangerous, and Danny Coltrane is passionate about changing it.

Unlike other on-demand services like an instant movie download, water is not a luxury expense. It is necessary for living a safe and healthy lifestyle. In a time when cities, such as Flint, Michigan, are facing the unthinkable reality of unsafe or dry taps, Coltrane’s message to community officials who say they can’t afford to fix their community’s water problems is simple: They can’t afford not to.

As managing director of Shafer, Kline & Warren (SKW) Water Resources South Region, Coltrane specializes in the effective treatment and distribution of water and wastewater. He has studied growth patterns, investigated system facilities and produced comprehensive planning documents to ensure communities are prepared to operate and maintain their water resources for years to come.

“There are some places that brag that they haven’t raised rates in 20 years, and the residents think that is a good thing,” said Coltrane. “To me, that’s sad. They have done nothing to control their future and have only postponed the inevitable cost of replacement to the next generation.” Coltrane advises that by understanding the life span of water systems, developing a comprehensive maintenance program, planning for reasonable rate increases and maximizing funds, communities can ensure clean water is available now and in the future.

 “When you sign on to be a city commissioner or official, you are there to watch out for the public’s health and safety,” said Coltrane. “The delivery of clean, safe water is an essential component of that.” One of the underlying assumptions that Coltrane confronts as a consulting engineer is that utilities have a 100- year life expectancy.

He clarifies that while a system might have this lifespan, there are parts of that system that have a 20-year lifespan. “Many of the water districts that came into existence in the 1960s use products that are inferior to today’s products,” said Coltrane. “They are coming to the end of their life expectancy and need to be inspected, repaired or replaced.” One of the dangers of not planning and maintaining these systems is that the operations and maintenance costs of the system could exceed the service’s worth. However, by creating a plan that matches the life span of the system, municipalities can ensure they are able to replace system components as needed.

“If you have a 100-year lifespan on 100 miles of pipe, a very simple plan is to replace one mile of pipe per year,” said Coltrane. “What can happen is that people try to save money by replacing a half mile at a time, but then the replacement plan is twice the life expectancy of the pipe.”

Each year, cost of living adjustments reflect the corresponding inflation. Many of the small towns and rural water districts initially built their systems on grant funds, but without those same start-up grants available, the communities need to account for replacing systems at full price. “By raising water rates with the cost of living, municipalities can sufficiently support their operating costs and effectively maintain their system without a sudden raise of 50 percent or more to account for a budget shortfall,” asked Coltrane. Understanding the integrity of facilities and systems is the foundation for developing a planning document for the municipality.

Coltrane advises performing a root cause analysis and developing a comprehensive plan is essential for maintaining water systems. “Do not plan for the water system and ignore the tank,” said Coltrane. “Take a complete view of the entire system as well as population trends, regulations and risk factors.” One of the benefits of the comprehensive planning and incremental rate increases that reflect the cost of living is that these steps allow cities to maximize the efficiency of their funds. “Once they have done the work on planning, cities and districts can watch economic and material trends during implementation,” said Coltrane.

“In one case, we were saving 10-25 percent on materials off the standard bid process.” “Our culture is such that we want everything now, and it can be hard to think about the future. But we can’t take water for granted. By changing the way we think about water, we can sustain our quality of life and preserve this standard of living for our children and grandchildren. That’s something worth investing in,” added Coltrane.

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