System upgrade to drive up water rates on midcoast

Posted April 26, 2010, at 8:54 p.m.

ROCKPORT, Maine — Several Knox County towns are preparing for a 23 percent hike in their water and fire hydrant bills from their provider, Aqua Maine.

The company applied to the Maine Public Utilities Commission for the 23.61 percent rate increase for customers in Rockland, Camden, Thomaston, Rockport, Owls Head, Warren and Union.

There is no solid deadline for the commission to approve or reject the company’s application.

“The major driver of this increase is the completion of a $7.2 million membrane filtration facility for the Mirror Lake water system,” Aqua Maine president Judy Kelley wrote in her testimony to the PUC. She wrote that 22 percent of the money gained from the 23.6 percent rate hike would pay for the project.

This burden will be shifted to each municipality.

Camden’s town budget line for fire hydrant fees from Aqua Maine shot up more than 20 percent, from $178,000 to $214,000 in the past year. This was Camden’s largest expense increase, except for the addition of a community development director’s salary and benefits.

Rockland is budgeting a $70,384 increase in water charges for fire hydrants because of the rate increases. This doesn’t include the $61,500 the city will pay for clean water to its residents, which is about $24,000 more than last year’s water charges.

According to Rockland finance director Tom Luttrell, fees will increase elsewhere in the city to make up for the water rate hikes. These fees will affect groups that hold festivals in Rockland. Festival organizers now will have to factor in fees for the use of public land and for public works, police and emergency services.

“It’s equivalent to a salary of one individual — that’s one way of looking at it,” Luttrell said. “It’s such a huge increase to the city. We’re lucky we didn’t lose many personnel, but we had to increase fees to cover the increase of water.”

Aqua Maine’s vice president, Rick Knowlton, said recently that this is the best time for the company to build its new treatment facility. Cheap building rates and an excess of grants have lowered the cost, he said.

“It’s not something we choose to do; we don’t do it lightly. It’s expensive, it’s not the best time in our economy to be doing this, but we’re taking some of the funding mechanisms through this administration,” he said.

Aqua Maine has received a $1.3 million grant for the project through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

“It effectively lowers the cost of the project through stimulus funds,” Knowlton said.

The facility is Aqua Maine’s biggest upgrade ever, and it is the first membrane filtration plant to be built in Maine.

The construction began in June 2009 and will wrap up in August. Municipalities were given notice in 2009 of what was estimated then to be a 25 percent rate increase, Luttrell said.

Not much has to be done to the water from Mirror Lake in Rockport, which supplies the seven towns. But in accordance with new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations, Knowlton said, Aqua Maine will stop treating water with chlorine and start filtering the water.

The new filter system is more energy-efficient, Knowlton said. Water will be shot through porous membranes, and material that is not supposed to end up in water will stick to the membrane rather than trickle through the pipes.

Most people will notice no difference in their water service, Knowlton said. But the chlorine taste and odor in the water will disappear for people who live near the treatment facility in Rockport, he said.

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