ICWD continues answers to Bulletin questions about water contract

Published 3:47 pm Sunday, July 12, 2015

By Leah Justice


Editor’s Note: following are the final questions posed to Inman-Campobello Water District (ICWD) General Manager Jeff Walker about a proposed agreement for Polk County and ICWD to share water resources and for ICWD to operate and maintain Polk’s water system for the next 75 years. Previous answers ran in the Friday, July 10 edition of the Bulletin. Look for answers from Polk County Commissioner Chair Tom Pack next week. The county’s next work session regarding the contract is scheduled for Monday, July 20 following a regular county meeting that begins at 6 p.m.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox


5) What’s in it for ICWD? With only 142 current Polk water customers, why invest that much money? Does ICWD need Polk’s water resources or is ICWD anticipating heavy growth in Polk County?


The ICWD does not need the county’s water resources.  In times of severe drought however, it is much better to have access to two or three water sources, than just one.  It’s really not a growth issue as much as it is a future drought issue.  Regarding the investment, the amount the ICWD could invest over 20 years could be substantial.  We don’t know exactly what it will cost to improve the dam but I don’t recall seeing an estimate lower than $1.8 and I haven’t seen one much higher than $2.5 million. If “trunk” or “feeder” water lines with the necessary tanks, pumps, etc. are installed at $100,000 per year for 20 years, that’s $2.0 million more.  Finally, with the ICWD water line extension policy being used instead of the county’s, the ICWD could be funding an additional $100,000 per year, which would yield another $2.0 million.  Altogether, that’s about $6.5 million of investment.

With the growth not anticipated to be so large that it will pay for this investment, on the surface it does seem either foolhardy on the ICWD’s behalf or it could seem like there is some sort of secret, nefarious agenda.  That’s absolutely not the case.  In the water system business, if a water system can acquire another water source, and a reservoir at that, for $6.5 million, it’s going to be worth that investment most of the time.  Further, if that same water system can acquire another water source and at the same time, help those that need public water get it while providing that service at a lower cost than they would otherwise be able to have, that’s all the better.  You have to understand that the ICWD exists to provide water service.  We have no other purpose.  The ICWD is not a charity, but it is certainly fair to say that any investment we make, even a water line extension, usually takes decades to “pay back”.


6) Explain how water rates will be structured for Polk customers? Is there still going to be a joint board to determine where water lines are constructed and water rates, etc.? Will Polk customers have any say, such as through public hearings when water rates are proposed to increase?


One of the things in which the ICWD has always been firm, is that water rates and fees for Polk County will match ICWD rates and fees.  There has never been a separate, higher water rate for Polk County customers.  Tap fees were initially higher for Polk County customers, but we were able to lower them to match our tap fees.  The agreement we are under right now actually allows for the ICWD to charge more for taps than we do.  If I’m not mistaken, the agreement also allows us to charge higher water rates for Polk County customers than we do.  The ICWD has chosen not to do this because our goal is to treat all customers the same.  If someone has a good well, that’s great for them.  But not everyone has a good well and if they can access it, public water is critical for their livelihood.  Since they more or less have to have it, we believe that it is our duty to provide that water service at the lowest possible cost that allows us to operate, provide our customers with very good service, and to plan for the future.

A joint committee should be formed as part of the agreement. The committee’s main functions, as I see it, are to determine where those trunk water lines are to be extended and to settle any disputes that could arise between customers and ICWD management.  Right now, customers in Polk County, should they want to appeal to someone other than management, could get on the agenda and ask our commission to override management’s decision or to change policy.  However, at the moment, Polk County customers don’t have any say in who their water system commissioners are since all of that is decided below the state line.  With the agreement in place, the committee, which we made sure had a Polk County majority, would be able to make those types of decisions.  Until we are able to create a joint water authority, this would give Polk County customers representation that they don’t have at the present.

The ICWD does, as a requirement of state law, conduct a public hearing before the approval of any budget and that would also include a budget in which an increase in water rates is being considered.  I’ve worked on 14 budgets, which represents a little over 13 years.  Over that length of time and with 14 budgets completed, we have only had one customer attend one of our public hearings.  I’m sure there are several reasons why the turnout is so low but it could be that one of the main reasons is that if the service is good and the cost of the service remains low or reasonable, customers don’t have much of a reason to attend the public hearings.  Even if the agreement doesn’t go through, Polk County customers are welcome to attend our public hearings but our hope is to not give them a negative reason to do so.


7) Once the agreement is approved, when ICWD constructs water lines, will everyone along that line have to tap on and receive public water or not? Many times that is the case, particularly in our towns where water and sewer lines are constructed. 


Just like it is now, no one will ever be forced by the ICWD to take our service.  You are right in that this is the case with other water and sewer providers and I assume there are good reasons for that but it’s just not the case for this water system.  It may cost an individual more to tap on at a later date, but it will always be that property owner’s decision.  The ICWD is not trying to sell anything, not even the agreement we are talking about.  We simply offer a service that people can access if they want it and can afford it.

8) What do you feel Polk County is going to gain from this agreement and what do you feel ICWD is going to gain from this agreement? 


I believe that both parties will gain quite a bit.  Who gains more depends on ones perspective I suppose but if this is fairly looked at and completely understood, I don’t think anyone can truly walk away thinking that the county is being slighted.  The contract is still being negotiated but here’s what the county gains from this agreement at a minimum:

  • Access to a water source outside of Polk County (the North Pacolet River), which should easily delay when water in the county would be used for drinking water.
  • A future water treatment plant that will serve Polk County customers with water at a lower cost than they could ever otherwise hope to pay.  This will cost Polk County nothing I might add.
  • 20 years of water system building (water lines, tanks, etc.) at no cost to the taxpayer.
  • At least 20 years of an established water system providing generally excellent service at a very fair price.
  • After that initial 20 years, if the ICWD is no longer wanted/needed, Polk County will have access to treated water at a significantly lower price.
  • The initial improvements to the dam at Lake Adger which allows the County to begin work on the silt issue much faster.
  • Customers in Polk County will have better representation should a problem arise and will have oversight via the committee I mentioned.
  • Until such time as the ICWD has to build a water treatment facility, should the contract with BRWA be extended to more than 20 years form now, which we hope it does, Polk County will be the beneficiary of lower water rates even if ICWD isn’t providing the service because of the volumes being purchased by ICWD.


It’s worth noting that all of this and more that will benefit Polk County is only going to be accomplished with the excess water that the county has.  Again, the ICWD would not agree to a contract where sometime in the future, a resident of Polk county could need water, and the ICWD would say that they can’t have it because it is promised to customers south of the state line.  If say, 70 years from now, the county’s water demands skyrocketed far beyond anyone’s most extreme projections to 8 MGD, the idea is that ICWD would be treating the water that is coming out of Polk County (in addition to the water in South Carolina) and Polk could purchase it for the actual cost to operate their own system.  Of course, no one believes that the county will grow that large but if somehow it did, the county will not have “sold” something that its citizens need.

The ICWD list of benefits is not as long as the county’s but, the benefits to the agreement are still very important.

  • As stated before, most importantly, the ICWD will gain access to an additional water source. A drought could occur at any time. It could start this year or it could start 40 years from now. There’s no good way to anticipate droughts.  However, if there is a severe drought in our region 40 years from now, the customers of ICWD and Polk County will be very grateful that their water system has two sources of raw water. Planning for the future is so important in public water supply and that is very much part of what the ICWD is attempting to accomplish here.
  • A homogenous operation is extremely important to the ICWD. It makes it much tougher to do our jobs well when there are two sets of rules. I’m not knocking the county for the decisions it makes but, if the decisions are different than what the ICWD is doing otherwise, it makes it hard to be as effective as we need to be. If an agreement is reached, the rules and regulations of operating the water system, including the water line extension policy for example, would be those of the ICWD and it is my belief that this will benefit all of the customers.
  • Additional customers will be good if the Polk County system grows much at all but we don’t expect it to and are not counting on it. However, I would never pretend that additional customers aren’t usually a good thing for a water system.  This is especially true for the Polk County system where we have just a handful of customers spread out over a fairly lengthy area.


Regarding future customers in Polk County and the revenue from them, there have been some folks that have made statements akin to “but ICWD gets to keep all of the revenue” and that is usually stated as if that is something bad for Polk County.  That kind of thought may seem justified at first, but I don’t believe that it’s accurate.

Sure, under this agreement, the ICWD would keep all of the revenue but we also would keep all of the expenses as well.  Our margins are fairly tight and that’s without spending about $6.5 million in Polk County.  Even with years of growth considered, in the future if the county had to operate its water system by itself, without subsidizing the operation with tax dollars, the expenses would be much higher and therefore the rates would have to be as well.  Just like water treatment plants, the economies of scale affect the expenses so up to a point, larger is better when it comes to the number of customers.

The other thing that the statement about ICWD “keeping the revenue” implies, is that the ICWD is going to somehow profit from Polk County customers in the same fashion that some towns and cities do when they charge higher water rates than they have to so that they can fund needs that are not water system related.  I don’t know of any city in the immediate area that does this but across our country it is probably fairly common.  I’ve always believed that one reason they do this is so that those towns/cities don’t have to charge as much on their taxes.  Well, the ICWD is just simply not set up that way.  We are a public entity created by legislation but we are not beholden to a city, town, or even the State of South Carolina. Whatever excess revenue we might have at the end of a fiscal year will simply go back into the operation of the water system either right away or in the future.  With the agreement in place, this would benefit customers in both areas while removing the tax burden to the county it would take to operate a water system, build a treatment facility, extend water lines, etc.

There is much more I’m sure I could explain about this agreement and especially what the goals for it are. If I wasn’t so close to this topic, I’m also sure I would have a ton of questions and concerns just like some of the folks in Polk County do.  I would want my questions answered.  To that end, as I have from the beginning, I invite anyone to contact me. I’ll be glad to set up appointments to meet with folks if that is desired or if they just want to email me their questions that will work too. I plan to take those questions and along with the answers, put them on the ICWD website for all to look at.  My email address and phone number are: jwalker@icwd.org and 828- 863-2295, ext. 18.