By Tim Cox
Celina and Mercer County officials say they are committed to working together to solve regional water problems, but admit there are obstacles that might prevent a joint effort in the short-term.
The city is in the middle of an estimated $2.5 million addition to its existing treatment facility to bring its water into compliance with Ohio EPA regulations. County officials, meanwhile, are considering their options for providing water to a planned ethanol facility east of the city and are under some political pressure from constituents to build their own water system.
County officials say the rural water system also needs numerous water mains replaced.
City officials, including Safety-Service Director Jeff Hazel, Mayor Sharon LaRue and consultant Kent Bryan said they would be hesitant to completely abandon the water plant after making millions of dollars in improvement to satisfy EPA orders. The plant has a capacity of 3 million gallons per day but only produces about 1.25 million. After new treatment equipment is added, the city will have the capacity to produce clean water for the foreseeable future.
But county commissioners said the move to bring the city's water into compliance won't completely satisfy rural customers. Many of them have dealt with rusty water caused by aging pipes for many years, Commissioner Jerry Laffin said. Many of those residents also disagree with the 10 percent surcharge they pay for city water, because the city does not replace the water lines, he said. Commissioner Jim Zehringer, posing a theoretical, "what-if" question, asked if the city could simply abandon its plans to fix the water and instead partner with the county on a central ground water plant.
The city is under EPA orders to bring its water into compliance by November 2007 or face daily fines of $25,000. Specifically, the city must reduce its levels of trihalomethanes (THM) in the water, which form as a reaction between organic material and chlorine in the water.
"We now have a solution that is tested and we know works," Bryan said, noting that developing a plan and siting a new water plant would take a considerable amount of time.
City officials plan to install granular activated carbon treatment to the current process, which tests have shown will pull the organic material from the treated water, preventing it from reacting with the chlorine.
Commissioners pushed city officials to make a final determination on whether they want to continue to partner with the county on water issues.
"We've been talking for a year-and-a-half and I'm not sure we're any farther than we were six months ago," Laffin said. "I see the support by the city administration ... but what about the support from city council who holds the voting power?"
Bryan said administration officials have kept council members abreast of the joint discussions but have not presented council members with a firm recommendation.
"We need to come up with the strategy we're going to go with," Bryan said, adding that administration officials will bring council's utilities committee into the process.
Commissioner Bob Nuding suggested a central water plant could be "up and running" already if the two governments had pursued the issue from the beginning of their talks.
If the county and city were to split on the issue, with the county building its own system and the city maintaining the status quo, it would drive up water costs to Celina city customers. Rural water customers use about 250,000 gallons daily, about 20 percent of the city's total output.
Conversely, if the city could sell an additional 500,000 gallons of water daily, such as to the ethanol plant, costs would go down overall, Bryan said. That is because many water treatment operational costs are fixed, no matter how much water is treated.
"All customers would benefit," Bryan said.