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Leaders to focus on water Monday

With perhaps the worst drought on record as a backdrop, the leaders of Polk County, Tryon, Columbus and Saluda will meet Monday to discuss the future of local water supply.

Water is the only topic on the agenda for the joint meeting in the Polk County Middle School auditorium at 7 p.m.

Although the four governments have at times expressed interest in cooperating on water supply, some major questions remain going into the meeting that&squo;s hosted by Polk County commissioners.

Will the three towns partner with the county to form a water authority and pursue the goal of securing the Green River as a water supply? Will the towns prefer to remain separate but agree to purchase some water from the county system to have it as a backup supply? Or will the county pursue the water system on its own and possibly even seek customers outside the county to help pay back the cost of an intake, treatment plant and distribution system?

The full elected boards for each town are expected to attend the meeting and likely adress these issues.

&bsp;It will be the first time for the full boards to meet on the water authority issue in a few years. In April, 2004, the boards met in Saluda and approved a memorandum of understanding &dquo;to work together to provide exclusively for the future wholesale and retail water needs of those within their towns and the county.&dquo;

They formed a Polk County Public Works committee, with the managers and two elected officials from each government, and launched a process to figure out the details of how they would work together. They also agreed to jointly fund a long-term water supply plan.

Progress, setbacks

Since then their discussions have brought both progress and setbacks. Just a few months after signing the memorandum of understanding, the towns accused the county of abandoning the cooperative effort.

The county created a small water system of its own at the middle school and considered extending it to other areas, or bringing in water from providers outside the county. The county stopped meeting with the towns and said it needed to move quickly on its own to get water to White Oak development in Sandy Plains.

By February of 2005 the four governments were meeting again. They reemphasized the importance of cooperating to get the Green River reclassified by the state for use as a public water supply. If they did not do it, officials reasoned, other providers outside the county may get the reclassification first. An outside provider would then have control of Polk County&squo;s most viable, potential water supply.

The towns and county steadily worked toward a plan for forming a water authority that would be governed by representatives from each of the four governments.

Last year county commissioners thought they had moved another big step forward when they approved a 15-point plan for creating the authority and the joint water system.

Saluda previously expressed support for the plan. But Tryon and Columbus raised concerns, saying there are too many unanswered questions about the financial aspects of forming and operating the system (see story above).

The county said many of the towns&squo; concerns can only be answered by the four local governments, not the county, since it is the four local governments that would form the system. County officials said they only wanted a commitment from the towns at this stage to work together on the financial plan.

Challenging task

The county organized Monday&squo;s meeting to clarify plans for the water authority and restarting joint discussions. But that task may be challenging.

Both sides have accused the other of trying to control future water supply in the county. County officials have

said they don&squo;t want to be in the water business by themselves, but are willing to take the lead to get a long-term supply secured.

The towns have said they have the infrastructure and expertise that could be the base for an expanded system over time, and they need to continue on a course that&squo;s in the best interest of their water customers.

Columbus has said it has sufficient water with its wells currently, and doesn&squo;t need to be part of the water authority.

The county recently proposed running lines to connect its water system at the middle school to the Columbus system and to reach the intersection of Hwys. 108 and 9 in Mill Spring.

The county said the lines would provide customers to fund the water plant on the Green River, and eventually be part of the water authority owned by the local governments. But Columbus responded by planning lines of its own in the same area. Columbus indicated it prefers to have the customers in Mill Spring instead of the county.

Tryon also has shown recently that it&squo;s willing to take care of water needs on its own. The county proposed a line from Saluda to Tryon, saying it would eventually be needed to connect the four local water systems in the authority. In the short-term the line could be used for a back-up supply for Tryon and Columbus from Hendersonville. Tryon responded by pursuing funding of its own for the water line, and making other plans to increase its supply.

Monday&squo;s agenda includes an update on the water authority plan from engineer David Odom and from county manager Ryan Whitson. It also includes a potential vote to form the Green River Water Authority and adopt the managers&squo; 15 points for a water authority agreement.