The Cost of Clean Water

Grant Park Beach.

We expect a decision soon from the Wisconsin Public Service Commission on the city’s request to increase water bills by an average of 41 percent. I’ll share that news when we get it.

As we await their decision, I have heard the concerns raised by residents and other property owners loud and clear. You aren’t happy, and I get it.

This is a significant increase with significant impacts, especially on those who are already struggling to make ends meet — and that’s a lot of people in our community, from seniors to families. It’s real money.

For the Brooks family, it may mean a $63.76 increase in our $178.32 bill we received in February, on top of the 35 percent increase in sewer costs last year and 5 percent this year. Paid three times a year. Other bigger users will pay even more.

People are rightfully upset, but the rationale is clear: This is money we must spend to ensure safe, clean drinking water for South Milwaukeeans.

Our recently published Q&A on this topic dives into the “why” more, and I shared some insights with TMJ4 as they came to town last week. Of note …  

  • The state is requiring us to make the investment driving most of the increase. We were told in 2008 about the need to replace our underground clearwells — where we store about a day’s worth of already filtered water before we pump it to users — with those above ground. More details on the project here.
  • Usage is down, way down. This is a critical point. While water conservation is a good thing in many ways, we now have fewer large users (think, Bucyrus, among others) to share in the burden of increases. Of note, we sold 773 million gallons of water in 1997, compared with 480 million in 2018. That is a 38 percent decrease in consumption. Our largest user is now Southtowne Apartments. That reality makes increases more painful for homeowners.
  • Costs go up. We had our last major increase in 2010, and our 3 percent increase in 2013 — our last one — is not enough to cover inflation during those eight years. That’s a flaw in the system, I’d argue. I’d prefer we have more regular, smaller increases to normalize rates and avoid huge increases like this, but the PSC does not allow them. We can do this with our sewer utility, and we are.

We are also not alone in seeking these large increases – and having to make big-ticket, state-mandated upgrades at our facilities — but that doesn’t ease the pain for the ratepayer. Nor does it soften this harsh reality: If these increases are approved, we will have the most expensive water in the county. And that is deeply concerning to me.

At the same time, we must invest in clean water, and we are.

The new lift station — which drove the sewer rate increase — is part of that, as are the clear wells. So is the work we’re doing to plan for, and eventually accomplish, a cleaner Oak Creek watershed – an effort that will assuredly outline millions of dollars in potential improvements in this critical community corridor.

Our urban forestry efforts help keep our water clean, as does the everyday work of our crews sweeping streets, and even picking up leaves. Add in community efforts like the Earth Day cleanup, the planting this spring of a new downtown community garden, the tireless work of our Friends groups … the list goes on.

South Milwaukee has long rallied around clean water and chosen to invest in preserving it. It’s a community commitment to the most important resource we have. This is the latest example of that.

7 Comments

Filed under South Milwaukee

7 responses to “The Cost of Clean Water

  1. Lee Koch

    Another reason, among the many, to move up north!!

  2. SM Guy

    It’s really a shame that this came up so suddenly and there was no way to prepare for it. For example, if the city would have known that the water rates would be needing such a significant increase just 5 months ago, maybe people could have taken that into consideration before agreeing to be taxed more to throw more money at the school…

  3. What are the comparable rates for other local municipalities? Sorry if I missed this information in your post.

  4. Jonathan A Seel

    If we knew about the improvement needs in 2008, why are we just looking at such substantial increases now? A gradual approach and planning would have been easier to swallow.

  5. Cory

    It sounds like the city, as well as all other city’s around should be opening up a case against the psc so that rules can be changed and allow utilities to bank money for upcoming improvements, just like any homeowner has to do rather than being able to increase rates by 40% after a project is completed.

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