PORT RICHEY — Residents are likely to see a higher-than-expected increase in their water bills as city leaders face the cost of combatting a recent brown water outbreak.
On Tuesday, the Port Richey City Council received the results of an engineer's study that found that the city's seven wells are suffering saltwater intrusion. City officials said the intrusion, which led to reports from residents of tea-colored water, is being caused by a mix of drought conditions, overpumping and the wells' proximity to the coast.
The engineering study recommended that in order to reduce intrusion the city should dial back its production of treated water to 450,000-gallons-day, around half of the city's daily needs. The result will be a spike in cost to buy water from New Port Richey, or possibly Pasco County, to make up the shortfall.
In a 4-1 vote, the City Council voted to allow City Manager Tom O'Neill to complete a rate study already in the works, factoring in any increases associated with the brown water problem, then bring an ordinance forward for public hearings to amend water and sewer rates.
The study currently recommends a 3.5 percent increase for users each year over the next five years, but officials said that is likely to increase to cover increased water purchases.
Council member Terry Rowe voted against moving forward, saying he needed more information before he felt uncomfortable saddling customers with the costs of dealing with the well woes — especially since the city sold residents in 2006 on spending $3 million to dig the now-struggling wells with the promise of reducing rates.
"It sounds like a money pit we are heading into," Rowe said.
It's unclear what a full year of buying water from New Port Richey will cost, but it's already been an expensive undertaking.
O'Neill had already ordered that well production be cut back while the cause of the brown water was investigated. Before the outbreak, Port Richey had been buying 10 to 20 percent of its water from its neighbor, but since the brown water reports, purchases from New Port Richey increased to 33 percent, according to O'Neill.
Since the complaints began flooding in from residents in March and the cutbacks began, the city has gone over its budget of $100,000 for the fiscal year ending in September by $89,000. But water quality has dramatically improved, O'Neill said.
"I think we've made good strides there," he said.
The cost, however, had Rowe wondering whether the city should even stay in the water business, while Mayor Eloise Taylor lamented the need for a rate increase she called inevitable. Others defended the service a small town can provide its residents. "I never want to see us abandon the water department," said council member Nancy Britton.