The water in Beaumont might meet state and federal standards for clean water, but the city is fighting an expensive battle to keep it that way.
The latest series of multimillion-dollar purchases to improve the water in Beaumont will likely put more greenbacks in the city coffers, but only after a seven-year period where the city will raise water rates an average of 5 percent each year, according to water utilities director Dr. Hani Tohme.
Without the additional revenue generated by a yearly average rate increase of about 5 percent, Tohme said Beaumont might be unable to complete much-needed improvements to the city’s water infrastructure.
“We’ll be raising rates yearly to be able to continue doing capital improvement projects and protect public health and safety,” he said.
The crux of Beaumont’s water problem seems to stem from the Neches River. The majority of Beaumont’s potable blue gold comes from the less-than-pristine but iconic river. Tohme said when it rains, the surface water at the Neches has much more “turbidity.” In other words, it’s dirty.
In mid-June, the city was forced to spend an unanticipated $450,000 on aluminum sulphate, a chemical that bonds to particulate matter in the water such as vegetation or other impurities so that it can be separated from the water.
After a hellish drought ended, Tohme said the city simply needed more chemicals to keep the water clean.
“We were using more of it (aluminum sulphate) because of all the rain we were having,” he said.
The city purchased about $100,000 worth of granular sulphate at the council meeting Tuesday, Oct. 2, but Tohme said this was a normal buy, not in addition to the city’s use of chemicals for water purification.
Beyond an uphill battle in purifying the water, Tohme’s fight to fix Beaumont’s aging water infrastructure is just as daunting. Tohme’s newest improvement — installing a real-time metering system along with a city-wide leak detection system — could save the city at least $15 million over a seven year period and provide water users with online and accurate usage data.
“The combination of the savings of the leak detection and improving the accuracy of the meters will pay for the project in seven years,” Tohme said.
The company employed by the city to install the real-time metering system as well as a high-tech leak detection system to the tune of $15 million will be required to pay the city if, after the seven-year period beginning Jan. 1, 2013, the city does not recover the $15 million in savings the company promised.
“If they don’t save it,” Tohme said, “they’ll have to write us a check.”
“We will improve our customer’s service by being able to provide our customers an hourly data of their usage,” he added. “So if they have a leak ... and they’re not aware of it, the system will realize that it’s above the normal usage. It will inform the operator of the system, who will inform the customer to check for leaks. This info will also partially be available to the customer on the Internet where they can monitor their usage.”
Tohme said other larger cities like Austin have already instituted such changes, making Beaumont a smaller trendsetter in this area.
“A lot of cities are moving forward with this type of metering,” he said. “We are being leaders in this business instead of followers.”