C-U may replace water supplier

By Patrick Wade

Urbana and Champaign split the cost of water consulting services to explore potential government ownership of the water supply-a move that Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing said could improve the quality and lower the cost of water in the two cities.

Currently, the water supply in both cities is owned by Illinois American Water, a subsidiary of RWE AG, a German based utilities supplier. Champaign and Urbana are among only a few cities in the area with a privately owned water supply, but Prussing said that recently RWE AG is looking to sell all of their North American holdings, which will only cause difficulties for the two cities.

“We had one (private water supplier) for about 100 years and had no problems,” Prussing said. “But there are companies that have bought and sold a couple of times since then, and every time it’s bought and sold we have more problems.”

Paul Berg, assistant city manager for Champaign, said that Illinois American Water is meeting some of its responsibilities, such as maintaining an Insurance Services Office Class I rating, which keeps insurance costs down, but needs improvements in other areas.

Some of the difficulties the two cities have experienced since Illinois American Water has taken control of the water supply are fire hydrant problems and boil orders, where the water pressure drops and it cannot be guaranteed that the water has not been contaminated. Prussing believes that if the city purchases the water supply, these problems will be eliminated.

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Over 90 percent of municipalities across the nation have a publicly owned water supply. Although the cities have the ability to acquire the company through eminent domain, Champaign Mayor Gerald Schweighart said that taking control of the water supply would be a last resort for the two cities. Instead, Champaign and Urbana are trying to reach partnership with Illinois American Water to address some of these shortcomings.

Illinois American Water criticized the Urbana City Council’s decision to invest money in water consulting services, which passed Feb. 5.

“It’s hard for the company to understand why valuable tax dollars are being spent on actions against the water company instead of important priorities, one of which is the Mahomet Aquifer,” said Barry Suits, network operations manager for the Champaign County District of Illinois American Water, at the Feb. 5 council meeting.

Illinois American Water was unavailable for further comment on the issue.

A study by the American Water Works Association found that water rates for the Champaign district are higher than 75 percent of other Midwest communities or communities serving 100,000 to 500,000 people. Prussing said that these rates could jump even higher in the near future.

“What we’re afraid of is if this particular company runs the show, they’re going to raise our rates a lot,” Prussing said. “That’s what they did in other places, and they’re planning a new plant west of Champaign and they are talking about raising the rates.”

Schweighart said that a municipally owned water company could mean lower water prices, but a larger cost burden to the government.

“It’s a trade-off,” Schweighart said. “With a city the size of Champaign and with the growing we’ve had, you would have to have a whole new infrastructure and a lot more new employees.”

Berg said that this course of action is the result of concern for the well-being of the two cities.

“We want to make sure that the interests of the community and of public health and safety are protected here,” Berg said.