Southern Knights

A nine-month turnaround of an Alabama county’s water system combines main inspection, leak repair and a tough-but-fair approach to billing

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Three years ago, the water system of Wilcox County, Ala., was hemorrhaging both water and money. As much as half the water was being lost through main leaks, and an ineffective billing system was costing much-needed operating revenue.


A partnership with water and wastewater service provider Clear-Water Solutions (CWS) that began in 2008 saw the water system turning a profit within nine months.

The area has been economically challenged, with high unemployment. Forward-thinking county commissioners identified the major impediments to development as structural, not endemic.


“One of our goals for the county was to get control of our infrastructure,” says John Matthews, a county commissioner. “We were looking at road improvements, our solid waste collection system and our water system to put us on a more solid economic footing and attract investment to the area. The water system had been failing according to our previous audits and had a long history of not meeting specifications.”


Paul Jackson, vice president of CWS, based in Opelika, Ala., approached the county when a contract for operating the water system neared conclusion in 2008. The company had reported considerable success in turning around water systems in other counties in the Black Belt region, so called for its dark topsoil.


Years earlier, while working for another company, Jackson had managed an upgrade of the water system of Camden, the county seat and one of two communities in the county with its own water service.


“I was working for the town of Camden at the time,” says Matthews. “I had met Paul and knew from his work on the system that he stood for accountability. We wanted someone from outside the county to take an objective look at the Wilcox County system and do what needed to be done to put it on firm financial footing.”


Long-term agreement

CWS and the county signed a five-year water system management contract worth $497,500 annually in July 2008. CWS took responsibility for billing and metering as well as operations. The contract specified that CWS would not be paid until revenue increased and that the county would not raise water rates until CWS showed residents that the system had improved significantly.


Water quality wasn’t a problem. The system is fed by four wells in deep aquifers that provide high-quality water, treated only by chlorination. The initial plan involved a confidence-building exercise in which CWS addressed the system’s worst leaks.


“The condition of the system was one of the worst I’d seen,” says Jackson. “We estimated water loss at 40 to 60 percent, which represents not only lost water, but chemical treatment, wear and tear on pumps and electrical costs.” The size of the system presented a challenge: its 375 miles of service mains are spread over 900 square miles.


CWS crews began to investigate the condition of the water mains in an inspection and repair blitz, bringing in extra workers to create a rapid-response force. The mains were largely older Class 60 PVC pipe, a thinner-walled material installed largely during the late 1970s. CWS isolated valves during the night, under the guidance of Goodwyn, Mills & Cawood Inc., an engineering firm from Montgomery.


With severe water loss narrowed down to individual sections of main, the team pinpointed the leaks through visual inspection, in some cases indicated by property damage. “The pipe was generally buried four to six feet underground, so it made more sense to dig down with mini-excavators and backhoes to perform repairs, instead of using any trenchless repair system,” says Jackson.


For severe leaks over a length of main, CWS removed full sections and replaced them with Class 200 or Class 250 PVC. Mains with isolated leaks were repaired using clamp systems supplied by The Ford Meter Box Co. Inc. or the Water Product Division of Mueller Co.


Major leaks repaired

“Within the first month of the contract, we fixed 42 water main leaks,” says Jackson. “Water pressure immediately improved across the system. One of the wells that used to have pumps running 24 hours per day actually filled up for the first time. But this is a really large system. We were constantly testing the pressure in different areas to make sure we weren’t deviating too much from ideal pressure.”


Service connections were similarly in poor condition, with leaks on both the customer and county sides. While water main leaks were the priority, service connections on the county side were also repaired when leaks were discovered in the initial survey.


“We found a lot of illegal connections, and broken water meters that registered zero usage, so that the customers were never charged,” says Jackson. “When the field technicians found a leak on the customer’s side of the meter, they let the customer know as soon as possible. The customers were responsible for fixing their own service lines.”


CWS installed an RVS Utility Billing System by RVS Software to coordinate billing. “Some of the meters weren’t registered with the billing system, and some people hadn’t paid a dime for water in five to 10 years,” Jackson says. “If they were delinquent on their bill payments, they were still receiving water.


“I’ll tell you that it isn’t an easy thing to get people to pay for water when they’ve been receiving it for free. As we replaced meters, we explained to the customers that when a new meter was installed, it would register all of the water going through it, and they would be responsible for any water that leaked through on their side.”


New meters installed

Unmetered homes or those with broken meters were outfitted with new units supplied by the Neptune Technology Group. “This company is one of the oldest in the business, and I’ve had good experience with them,” says Jackson.


State law allowed the county to recoup only two prior years of billing, so much of the outstanding debt had to be written off. Residents without meters were billed at the minimum charge of $12.50 per month.


“Wilcox County is rural and is one of the poorest areas in the country,” says Jackson. “We didn’t want the residents to feel they were being taken advantage of. We wrote up a set of policies, procedures and regulations and told them up front that we could not deviate from them. The county made it clear that this wasn’t just CWS talking, but the county government as well — and that collecting the outstanding amount would benefit the entire system.”


After advertising heavily over a two-month period that the utility would negotiate repayment plans, the county shut off water to 600 account-holders who failed to pay their bills. Most of those people subsequently came to the county water office to settle their bills or negotiate repayment plans.


With major improvements already evident in improved water pressure and system reliability, the county moved to increase water rates to a sustainable level. “We hadn’t passed a water rate increase in 15 years,” says Matthews. “It was something we knew we had to address, but something we felt could be handled better by an outside agency.”


The county set new rates only after the new water system gained customers’ confidence. Within three months, the minimum water charge was raised to about $18 per month, still among the lowest in the state. “It’s the first time in my career that someone raised water rates and received zero complaints,” says Jackson.


Turning a profit

Within nine months, the water system was operating at a profit. Vendors who once refused to deliver products to the county were shipping again. With the system on firm footing, CWS began a system of routine maintenance of water mains and services.


“Each month, the meter readers report any leaks or repairs that need to be made,” says Jackson. “Before our contract, if customers called to report a leak, they were wasting their time. We now respond to those calls promptly. Our goal is to concentrate on areas that have the most problems first, and then we will address the other parts of the system.”


A little more than a year into the agreement, Wilcox County extended the contract with CWS to July 2017. As part of the bargain, CWS installed a SCADA system at no additional charge to help monitor water pressure, leaks and well levels. “The SCADA system has already saved us at least once, by detecting a major leak long before it became a problem,” says Matthews.

The alarm bells sounded when a sensor in a well storage tank reported a sudden drop in water levels. “We got on top of that leak and fixed it long before anyone ran out of water,” says Jackson. “You have to be ready 24/7 for the next big water main break.”


At present, there is no additional inspection routine for water mains, because the SCADA system is locating problems that keep work crews busy. A certified operator inspects the county wells three times per week.


Adding customers

Future plans include an application to the United States Department of Agriculture by CWS, the county and its engineers to fund the expansion of the system to 300 new customers who have requested water service.


“New mains will have to be installed, and the engineers are gathering the information now on what’s required,” says Jackson. “We are also looking for funding to upgrade the water storage tanks and to replace the manual water meters with meters read by radio.” A fifth well now in the works will add more than enough capacity for the new customers while providing backup for existing clients.


In a recent customer survey CWS conducted for the county, water services received a 90 percent approval rating. “Our audit went without a hitch,” says Matthews. “We went from the worst to one of the best. ClearWater Solutions has done a wonderful job turning the system around in a short time. The quality of service is there, and the accountability is there.”


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