By Tim Cox
Mercer County and Celina city officials clearly have some obstacles to overcome if they are to pursue a regional water system that would serve the city and surrounding population center.
The sides met for the first time Thursday in what is expected to be a series of ongoing discussions over the next few months. At the crux of the issue is the fact that the city and county have vastly different goals for the short-term, which could prevent them from collaborating on the water issue.
The city is pursuing a short-term solution to its longstanding water problems to gain EPA compliance. City officials are under the gun to do so, with a Nov. 2007 deadline looming to comply or face fines of $25,000 per day for excessive levels of trihalomethanes in the water.
After they are out from under the EPA's thumb, city officials say they plan to decide whether to pursue long-term improvements to the existing water plant or find a suitable groundwater source to build a new plant. They view a combined effort with the county as a potential long-term solution.
County officials, on the other hand, are under pressure to do something in the near future to correct some problems in the East Jefferson water district. The county owns that infrastructure but the city supplies East Jefferson residents and businesses with water. County officials said some residents are pushing commissioners to build a water plant of their own so the residents are not forced to help fund Celina's planned fixes. The area also needs new water pipes in many places and a new water tower is necessary to provide adequate water pressure to some industries in the area.
Whether the two entities can dovetail their unique needs into a single overall solution remains to be seen. Thursday's gathering was a loosely organized brainstorming session where no decisions were made. Instead, officials spoke in generalities to help set the course of future talks.
The ideas pitched were wide-ranging, from running the existing Celina water plant along with another plant in the township to siting a new sewer plant north of a continental divide. A Great Lakes Drainage Basin continental divide that snaked through the northern part of the city has hampered a switch to groundwater because it is heavily regulated. The city cannot take water from that watershed and then release it as treated discharge in the Ohio River watershed without additional expense and three to five years to get a permit to do so.
If there was a sewer plant north of the continental divide, that regulatory issue would go away because the water would be discharged directly back into the original watershed.
Another issue discussed was grant funding. The county is in a far better position to secure grant assistance because it can qualify for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Development program. The city does not qualify because the program is aimed at cities with populations under 10,000. Celina had about 10,300, according to 2000 Census figures.
It remains unclear whether the city and county as a combined entity would qualify for the federal program.
Officials decided to research that issue along with how a regional water development authority is set up and how it operates. County officials also plan to look at ways they can meet their short-term goals while creating a situation that would allow the city to combine its efforts at a later date.