Homeowners ask for help with water problems
Motivated by their mandate to protect the public health, the Morgan County Health Department has stepped into a dispute over a private water system serving Apple Orchard Acres subdivision off of Tabor Road, south of Berkeley Springs.
The community’s homes are supplied by a central water system managed by a private company – Valley Water & Sewer of Jefferson County.
Several subdivision residents raised concerns that the system often runs out of water and the water supplied to their homes isn’t always clean.
Residents and several county officials attended the Board of Health meeting on Monday, June 27 to discuss the issue, said Lee Fowler, Health Department administrator.
Some of Apple Orchard Acres’ 45 water customers recounted problems with the system, describing times when their homes were without water for at least 24 hours, if not for days at a time.
Other residents described getting cloudy water from their taps or water so full of iron that they couldn’t use it for laundry.
A public health concern
Fowler urged the health board to create a task force to look for solutions to the problem. The group will meet this month.
Fowler pointed out that the Health Department doesn’t normally have authority over private water systems, but acted under its jurisdiction to address public health concerns.
“I definitely feel this is a public health issue,” he told The Morgan Messenger.
Health Board member Patti Miller resigned from the board before the discussion began because she is a homeowner in Apple Orchard Acres and wanted to avoid any conflict of interest.
Lee Snyder, who owns Valley Water & Sewer, has acknowledged that the water system, which is several decades old, is in need of upgrades. Snyder took over the system in 1995.
In 2010, two Apple Orchard residents filed complaints with the Public Service Commission (PSC). Homeowners cited inadequate water as their primary complaint.
Snyder responded that his company can’t afford the improvements to the system because the revenue from their customers won’t cover the costs.
He claims his company lost $80,000 on the water system last year, because heavy leaks made it necessary to buy and truck in water for customers.
The PSC recommended that Valley Water construct certain improvements and upgrades, but stepped back from that position when Snyder insisted
his company couldn’t afford the work.
“There are insufficient revenues to cover the cost of service,” the PSC concluded.
Wells not an alternative
Complicating the picture is an old subdivision rule which prohibits most lots from having private wells. And some of the smaller lots simply have no room for the setbacks required for wells, Fowler said.
In addition, the PSC urged Snyder to petition the County Health Department to turn down any applications for private wells in the development.
“There is no reasonable way for Valley to undertake the indebtedness for the upgrade of the Apple Orchard Acres Water System without the assurance of a stable customer base,” Snyder wrote in a May 27
letter to the Board of Health.
Snyder told The Messenger on Friday that the Apple Orchard Acres system has lost money consistently because it is aging and the wells that feed the system are insufficient to meet usage.
In his letter to the Health Board, he said the main well generates only 12 gallons per minute.
“I fully understand how to fix every part of it. It’s just a matter of cost. Our company is not prepared to shell out that money,” Snyder said.
“From my perspective, I need to quit losing money,” he said.
Snyder estimates it would cost $400,000 to $500,000 to increase the storage capacity of the system, sink a new well and replace the leaking water lines.
“The only potential solution is some kind of public financing to replace the system,” he said.
Otherwise, the water system will just have to limp along as it is because his company won’t make further investments in the pipes or storage, Snyder said.
“I’d give it away if someone wanted to take it,” he said. “If Morgan County wanted to take it over, they could have it.”
Rates shoot up
In the midst of dealing with questions about poor water supply and quality, residents were informed by Snyder that their water bills will go up this month.
The system’s water customers have been paying a flat rate of $20 per month for the last 15 years, according to the PSC.
This flat rate will rise to $43.40 per month. Metered customers will see varying bills, based on usage.
The new rates went into effect on April 22, after the PSC dismissed the customer case against Valley Water. According to the PSC, they were assured by Snyder that the issues had been resolved.
The new rate is the same as Valley Water charges customers in a Berkeley County subdivision called Deerwood.
State utility officials decided in April that the two community systems should be considered one utility, and then approved the rate increase for Apple Orchard Acres.