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Lockport mulls future of its water system

LOCKPORT – The newly elected Common Council will be asked to consider hiring a consultant to analyze whether the City of Lockport should continue to supply its own drinking water.

Mayor Anne E. McCaffrey said at the Dec. 16 Council meeting that she wanted to consider whether the city should start buying water from North Tonawanda – an option that’s been on the table for several years – or from the Niagara County Water District.

“I believe we definitely need to do a cost-benefit analysis of those three options,” McCaffrey said.

At the same meeting, the Council raised the water rates, a 17 percent hike in the charge for metered water for residential customers. Industrial and commercial charges went up, too. It’s not unusual for a city resident, even one with a small family, to pay well over $500 a year for water and sewer services. They are billed together every three months.

For more than a century, the city’s water has been pumped 13 miles from the Niagara River at North Tonawanda to the city filtration plant on Summit Street in Lockport, where it is treated and pumped out to customers. Most of the supply line was replaced in the 1990s, but the original pipe is still used in the 1.5-mile segment closest to the filtration plant, according to Dale Lawson Jr., the city’s water maintenance supervisor.

There is an existing connection between the city and county systems at the Summit Street plant – the county is Lockport’s emergency backup water source – but Lawson said it’s insufficient if the city becomes a full-time county water user.

The pipe is 20 inches in diameter, and Lawson said a 30-inch pipe would be needed to keep a sufficient flow going for residential and business use and fire protection.

“We need two piggybacked connections,” Lawson said. “The nearest county connection is Robinson Road.” That’s about two miles from the city plant.

Also, the county pumps water at twice the pressure the city uses. The county system pumps at 120 pounds of pressure per square inch; the city uses 60 pounds. Lawson said the city would need to construct two “pressure-reducing pits” to take the water pressure down to a level the city system could withstand. Otherwise, he said, “It would just explode our lines.”

Also, the county Water District charges its nonmember customers $1.50 per 1,000 gallons, district director Herbert A. Downs said. That price is charged to three towns in western Orleans County that buy Niagara County water. The Niagara County towns in the district pay 75 cents per 1,000 gallons.

The price for the city would have to be set by the town supervisors, who comprise the Water District board. But Downs warned, “There’s no way it would be 75 cents.”

Lawson said he thinks the city can produce potable water less expensively than the county. He said the city currently is spending about 42 cents for every 100 cubic feet of water; a cubic foot is 7.48 gallons. The city is budgeting $87,000 for chemicals and laboratory supplies and services this year.

Asked if city water really is cheaper to produce, Downs said, “It very well could be.”

Lawson said the city runs its filtration plant at less than half-capacity because it doesn’t need to crank it up more. He said the plant could deliver 12 million gallons a day, but today it only puts out 4.5 million to 5 million gallons a day, because that’s enough to serve the city.

“Why aren’t we selling water? Why not use our plant to make money?” Lawson asked. He suggested taking steps to sell water outside the city.

Lawson admitted that the city would have to build pipelines to take its water outside the city limits.

In a three-day test last year, the city’s supply line from North Tonawanda was shut down and county water was used while engineers looked at the condition of the supply line.

“The (county) Health Department said our water was cleaner than the county’s,” Lawson said. “I can’t see reducing quality of the water while doubling the price.”

Downs said the county has just finished laying a second 20-inch water main down Lockport Road from its Wheatfield plant to give it a backup plan, as well as pump more water to remote areas in eastern Niagara and Orleans counties.

“If we were to take (Lockport) on as a permanent customer, we’d need another one,” Downs said. “We would want the redundancy.”

The North Tonawanda deal, which calls for buying treated water from that city and pumping it to Lockport through the existing supply line, has been on the table since the two cities accepted a $444,000 state shared services grant in 2006.

However, neither city has pushed the deal to completion. No price ever has been set for a potential sale of North Tonawanda water.

McCaffrey said the results of a test on the ability of the Lockport supply line to handle treated water are expected in the spring.

Also, there would be a need to build a pipeline to connect North Tonawanda’s treatment plant to the Lockport pipeline.

McCaffrey said the fact that Lockport has an outlet on the Niagara River may have some value. “That’s not an access point we would easily give up,” she said.

On the other hand, the city pays property taxes to the towns and school districts through which the 13-mile pipeline runs. The tax bill is budgeted at $200,000 for 2016.

McCaffrey also said the city needs to look at rehabilitating the Summit Street plant in the next 10 years.

“We don’t know what the cost would be,” she said. “It could be significant.”

The question of whether the city would reduce staff at the plant if the water was treated elsewhere also has to be examined. The mayor said, “If we bought water from North Tonawanda or from the county, we would still have people working on the lines in the city, so we’ll always have that expense.”

Another angle is the condition of the old portion of the supply line, which runs down Hinman Road, right past the Lafarge North America gravel quarry, which the company seeks to expand. The city hired GHD, an engineering firm, at Lafarge’s expense, to analyze whether blasting closer to the pipeline would damage it.

The report exists in draft form, but McCaffrey declined to release any information about it until it’s finalized.

All these considerations are why McCaffrey thinks the city really ought to hire someone to figure it all out.

“There are so many pros and cons of each option, it’s a very complicated analysis,” she said.