Discolored water distressing to Lecompton residents, especially after huge rate increase

While rates have gone up, quality hasn't

? During the past four years, water rates in this northwestern Douglas County community have skyrocketed.

The rates are up 120 percent. And that’s caused a lot of consternation among local residents.

And while they’re paying more for water, the quality has been, well, questionable.

Lecompton resident Bill Roberts prefers not to brush his teeth or shower at home.

“One day it comes out semi-clean, the next day it comes out looking like it was mud,” Roberts said. “Everyone is just fed up with it.”

Then there’s Nick Fergus’ pool, which was filled with water the shade of “old pond” brown. One woman who wants to have children is afraid to drink what was coming out of the tap.

In the past month or two, Lecompton residents have come before city council voicing concern with the rusty, brown water that has been flowing through the pipes.

The frustration stems from water bills that have more than doubled in the past four years to cover a $3.5 million water improvement project. That project is several months behind schedule and more than $100,000 over budget.

In just the past 18 months, Lecompton’s roughly 275 water customers have seen their bills increase by about 60 percent. Today the average water user in Lecompton pays $58 a month.

What Fergus described as “tea-like” water has been a problem for years, but the hope was that it would go away when the water bills went up.

“We are paying the highest rate in the region for water and still get that,” Fergus said.

The city received close to $1.5 million in community development block grants and rural development grants to help with the project. The rest is covered with a 40-year loan.

The improvements included replacing a 50,000-gallon water tower with one that holds 250,000 gallons, a move that will give the city three days worth of storage. At the water plant, a filtration system was put in place to remove iron and manganese, and a system was implemented to soften the water.

But the project went over budget when equipment costs were higher than anticipated, City Superintendent Justin Van Winkle said.

The city also had to buy more pressure regulators for the water tower than anticipated and run a drain from the plant’s lagoons to the river to accommodate the waste from salt brine backwash.

Unfortunately, city officials didn’t include any financial penalty for missed deadlines in their agreement with contractors.

Construction on the water tower, which started last summer, was supposed to be completed this spring. It began operating two weeks ago. The water plant upgrades got under way in January 2009 and were anticipated to be done in the late fall. It started producing water at the start of this year, but service has been off and on since then, Van Winkle said.

And this week, the city continued to work with contractors to get the water-softening system up and running.

So far, Van Winkle said rates aren’t expected to increase further to cover the $100,000 in cost overruns.

“Any unexpectedness has come out of our water fund,” he said.

Van Winkle certainly is aware of residents’ frustrations, but he believes they should see consistently better water quality soon.

“They were starting to pay for something they weren’t receiving, but at the same time we needed to build a little bit of surplus because of the new chemicals, the salt brine, there is more cost in operating the new plant than what we had in the old plant,” he said.