Water plan remains a work in progress (March 8, 2023)

BULLHEAD CITY — The water master plan for Bullhead City still is a work in progress, but Utilities Director Mark Clark and City Manager Toby Cotter gave an hour-plus report on that $1.6 million guiding document for the future of the city’s water system.

Cotter called it the first of many discussions, meetings and documents on the formal plan being produced by a professional engineering services contract with West Coast Civil, Inc.. The contract was approved by the Bullhead City Council in February 2022 about two weeks after the city took full ownership of the water system previously owned by EPCOR Water Arizona. The city condemned EPCOR’s local operation through imminent domain proceedings and eventually paid the subsidiary of Canadian-owned EPCOR Utilities Inc. $100 million for the system.

No previous water plan for the city existed, in part because the city didn’t have ownership of the utility infrastructure, and in part because the water system was cobbled together through previous owners and included mini-systems put in place by private developers.

Clark said seven of the 11 expected chapters have been completed in the plan that will serve as a short- and long-term needs analysis to help the city maintain an efficient, reliable water system for decades to come.

Cotter cautioned city council members at Tuesday’s workshop that the recommendations of the final draft will be well beyond the city’s immediate fiscal capabilities.

We can’t afford to do everything they’re going to tell us to do, Cotter said, noting those recommendations would likely total capital expenditures of up to $15 million a year, far beyond the $3 million range city officials have agreed will be necessary.

The plan will help make sure we’re investing in the right areas, Cotter said. Later, he added, We need to be very meticulous with our investments.

After recapping the problems the city encountered almost immediately after assuming operation of the system on Sept. 1, 2021, and actual ownership about five months later, Clark said priorities will include improving supply, storage and delivery in various parts of the total system.

The plan development relied on some maps and information provided by EPCOR, Clark said, and some of that information was inaccurate. Part of that might not have been EPCOR’s fault because it purchased the system from previous owners and never developed an accurate, comprehensive current map of how the systems connected — or in many cases, didn’t. Some mapping, he said, showed lines in the wrong places, had ones where they didn’t have lines, so one of the first undertakings was to get an accurate mapping and inventory of all parts of the water system, both below and above ground.

Clark said the city spent the first year of ownership of the water system discovering just how bad of shape it was in.

We should have bought the system a year later, he said, half-joking, after the city encountered five failed wells among a variety of broken mains, failed valves and other obstacles.

The city had no way of knowing the condition — nor did EPCOR at the time — without digging up components to inspect them.

Five wells in 18 months, Clark said. That’s unheard of.

He and Cotter both said that EPCOR’s regular maintenance of the system was deficient and that the city is paying the price now. They said the city’s first priority is to meet current and future water needs of Bullhead City residents and businesses.

Despite the amount of money being discussed, Cotter said, he said that residents should feel the city is being good stewards. Every page we turn here are opportunities to make the system better, he said.

The plan also includes a needs assessment with projected development and growth of the city’s population, which currently stands at about 42,000 people. The plan doesn’t directly address any water shortages; it is aimed at making sure the city has adequate infrastructure to meeting the needs of its residents and businesses.

Bullhead City’s 20,000 water customers — residential and business meters — currently use about 6.5 million gallons of water per day with a peak use of about 11 million. By 2030, the demand is expected to be about 8 million gallons per day and a peak of nearly 15, and by 2040 demand is projected at 9 million gallons per day and a peak of about 17 million.

We have to meet the water demands every day, Clark said. We have to have facilities in place to meet that peak.

While city officials have stressed their hopes to avoid any rate increases — so far, they’ve stood by that pledge — both Cotter and Clark said that at some point a rate hike is inevitable to maintain and improve the system.

There will be at some point some increases … Clark said, although neither were ready to say when that point might come.

Cotter was quick to point out that if and when that time does arrive, it’s unlikely to be a significate rate hike like the one sought by EPCOR that pulled the city into the water utility business in the first place.

Source: Bill McMillen, Mohave Valley Daily News