The city of Port St. Joe approved a water study last week in hopes of determining the source of discolored water.

The city of Port St. Joe approved a water study last week in hopes of determining the source of discolored water.

The study will be undertaken by CDM, the designer of the plant, under a contract with Preble Rish.

A question that all utility users of the city can fairly be asking is why is this study on our tab?

This new surface water plant and the resulting impacts to the city and its water and sewer users has been a significant quality of life issue.

While many residents have seen virtually no change in their water, others are dealing at times with what looks like raw sewage spewing from the tap.

There are residents who have seen water filtration systems turned to brown and unusable, been forced to purchase bottled water if they desire any guarantee about the water they are drinking and had clothes ruined by too many cycles washing in water one wouldn’t wash a gutted fish with.

The ancillary costs to water users have been significant, if only counting the stress and aggravation users have experienced in trying to get answers to why the water is not so crystal clear.

But it is the real, tangible costs that have been truly ruinous to the city.

The $21 million for the water plant and now millions more in replacing some 20 miles of aging pipe threading through the city. The amount of water consumed to establish a flushing program and map the city’s distribution system is in the hundreds of thousands of gallons.

Utility users have seen their rates move upward three times in the past several years and face still another rate hike this fiscal year.

Yes, there has been grant money that has paid for large portions of the infrastructure, but those are different from real costs to end users only in semantics. They are taxpayer dollars.

And the city would not be looking at nearly $20 million in debt – requiring $1.1 million in debt service and fees beginning next fiscal year – if not for the infrastructure work that has been a result of this new water plant.

This brings us to the Northwest Florida Water Management District and its recent press release concerning approval of underwriting costs to improvements at the Chipola Pump Station, the crucial link between the Chipola River and the freshwater canal the city taps for water.

That grant, in effect, provided some monetary level of comfort for commissioners in deciding to spend $60,000 on what is called a profile/study of the water distribution system that now feeds much of the south end of the county.

The end of that release spoke to the grant as being part of the district’s overall regional goal of moving Gulf and Franklin counties to surface water sources.

The NWFWMD should in turn play a far more proactive role in the process of solving this problem because in the last few years since the new water plant went online there have been far too many instances in which indicators were there of what trouble could be coming and largely considered as risk/reward issues.

After the fact did we learn that a pilot study performed prior to the purchase of the microfiltration system at the heart of the plant and before the plant was designed that there were indications that once this more caustic water, due to changes in chemical treatment, hit the distribution pipes there was potential for trouble.

All one had to consider was that the city lacked a cohesive map of the system, that some valves and other key features of the system could not be located or were in places not expected, to consider that if there was a potential, that potential was likely enhanced by the lack of knowledge and maintenance of the distribution system.

Only after the fact, years after in fact, did contractors perform a thorough walk-through of the plant to discover a series of potential design and maintenance problems that the city either had no knowledge of or was in no position to fix.

And one thing that walk-through demonstrated was that communication between the various parties involved in bringing that plant online – the city’s engineers, the designer, the producer of the filtration system, city staff – had gaps in communication that proved, in the end, to be costly – to users of the water.

That has been the outcome here – experts from the state on down assumed risks and when the risks reared their ugly head, the costs have been largely borne by the city and its utility users.

On fundamental terms, that is wrong and places a burden on households, in a difficult economy, that are the result of others playing that risk/reward contest and losing.

The NWFWMD is already calling much of the shots on the scope of the water study to be undertaken for some eight months and the district should be the one picking up the costs.

In addition, the county legislative delegation should get involved and correct the disparity in how water management districts are funded and place the one servicing Northwest Florida on equal funding footing as the others.

But most importantly, a higher power, so to speak, has to step in and relieve the pressure. The city is going broke. The Board of County Commissioners has been counter-productive. The experts the city relied on risked and the city paid the cost.

The tab on the water has long ago reached the breaking point for far too many in a town desperate for economic growth.

Placing additional burden – and as one commissioner pointed out this water study could well lead to more costs – on end users is placing the responsibility for the risk/reward equation evident in this water plant on the wrong parties.

Time for those who assumed the risks for the city and its utility users to start picking up the tab.