Water cooperative challenges water rates

By Steve Hansen
QCS Managing Editor
The RAD Water Users Cooperative says that since the City of Tucumcari can’t account for about half of the water it pumps through its water system and other failures in maintaining its water system, it cannot justify charging rates that are 28 percent higher than a year ago’s.
RAD made these assertions in its response to a suit filed against the co-op last March. The city alleges RAD co-op has failed to pay the higher rates, even though the city has shown they are justified, according to an amended complaint filed in Tenth District Court last March.
The city’s suit says RAD co-op is has breached its contract with the city.
But RAD says the city has no business raising water rates drastically when its loss rate is high and there is reason to doubt the accuracy of some meters.
RAD says the city has not proven its case for the water rate increase, using criteria established through a 1987 court decision and an agreement RAD and the city signed in 2010, court documents show.
The unaccounted-for water is probably going to parks and recreation areas, and the cemetery and this water is not being charged, RAD Attorney Michael Garrett said. The city may be reporting it as leakage, he said.
If it is leakage, Garrett said, it violates the state Rural Water Association’s standard of not more than 10 percent leakage.
The water association’s website describes the agency as a nonprofit membership organization committed to helping communities provide safe drinking water and wastewater services through on-site technical assistance, specialized training, and legislative support.
Everyone in Tucumcari, Garrett said, is paying for twice as much water than they need.
The city’s attorney, Randy Knudson, would not discuss the case in detail but said he is confident the court will find the city has made its case for the rate increase, according to terms of the 1987 case and the 2010 agreement, and RAD will be found to be in arrears in paying for the water it has consumed.
The water loss information comes from a report of a study of Tucumcari’s  water financing and billing conducted in 2011 by the Rural Community Assistance Corporation funded by U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development.
City Manager Doug Powers said metering is probably more to blame for the recorded difference between water pumped and water used than leakage or unaccounted-for water usage.
The water loss information comes from a report of a study of Tucumcariπs water financing and billing conducted in 2011 by the Rural Community Assistance Corporation funded by U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development.  The report is included in the court case documents.
According to this report, Tucumcari pumped nearly 435.7 million gallons of water in 2009 and sold 231 million gallons, leaving 204.6 million gallons unaccounted for.
The recovery rate, or water sold, is 53 percent, the percentage that RAD’s response says is lost or wasted.
The 204.6 million gallons that seems to be unaccounted for represents about 47 percent of the water pumped. The RAD response says that water was either misused or wasted.
The $1.3 million expense budget recorded for 2009 means that the city’s cost per 1,000 gallons of water pumped was about $2.93, whereas the cost per 1,000 gallons sold is about $5.53, the report says.
The report also advised the city to replace any water meters that are 12-15 years old, since they are likely rendering inaccurate readings due to corrosion and build-up of sand and mineral deposits.
To find the missing water, the report suggested a guidebook that would help the city determine whether the water was lost in distribution, through illegal connections, flush hydrants, fire hydrants or faulty meters.  The report also expressed concern about a lack of working master meters that measure large flows.
“Meters are every water utility’s cash register,” the report said.
Despite the large amount of water that was not accounted for and the possibility of defective meters, the RCAC report suggested the city raise water rates to recover all of its costs in recovering and processing water.
In 2012, documents filed with the court show the city notified RAD that its rates would rise from  $2.19 per 1,000 gallons to $2.81 per 1,000 gallons — about 28 percent. The amount is still less than the $2.93 cost per 1,000 gallons pumped the community assistance program’s study determined is the actual cost of pumping and distribution.
In the previous year, the rates had increased only 1 percent, from $2 per 1,000 gallons to $2.19 per 1,000 gallons.
When new city rates go into effect at the end of July, city residents will pay $16.22 for the first 3,000 gallons of water used, a city employee said.
The next 6,000 gallons will be charged at a rate of $3.30 per thousand gallons, with rates increasing for amounts used beyond that amount.

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