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NL council climbing out of a watering hole

Irrigation meters to incur fees year-round if NL ordinance passes

NORTH LIBERTY– North Liberty residents who like a lush, green lawn may have to pay more for it in upcoming seasons.
Last Tuesday, Jan. 8, the North Liberty City Council passed the first reading of an ordinance amendment to change the way the city bills for irrigation meters.
Irrigation meters are those secondary meters some homeowners install to water lawns, fill swimming pools and irrigate outdoor plants. In the past, such a meter has been a money saver because the city bills only for the water used, but not related sewer charges, since the water does not directly re-enter the public sewer system. Also, irrigation meters incur a minimum monthly usage fee of $12.81 just six months out of the year, instead of 12 months like all other meters.
Much of that is about to change.
Homeowners with irrigation meters installed before July 1, 2012, will still be allowed to use them– as per the amendment’s grandfather clause– and will still only be charged for water used and not sewer fees. However, if the ordinance is adopted, they will have to pay the minimum usage fee year round. It means an additional $76.86 out of pocket annually for those who with irrigation meters who wish to water.
To discourage future installation of irrigation meters, the city will begin assessing all new irrigation meters with the related sewer fees, as well.
In essence, you can still install an irrigation meter, but the financial advantage will now be down the drain.
Buoying the change is the city’s desire to encourage water conservation, according to North Liberty Water Superintendent Greg Metternich. Last week, Metternich presented information to the council on the community’s water usage trends and related costs.
Currently the water plant produces an average daily flow of 1.1 million gallons, up from about 1 million gallons last year and 900,000 gallons the year before that. The plant runs well now and is capable of producing even more water, Metternich said, but when pushed past its peak capacity, the water starts to show increased hardness.
“It’s nothing unsafe, just aesthetically less pleasing,” Metternich said.
So the water department takes steps to store excess capacity to utilize in the summer during times of higher demand.
North Liberty’s water comes from various sources: two Jordan aquifers, four Silurian aquifers, and a recently-build ASR (Aquifer Storage Recovery) well, which allows the city to draw water from the other two wells in times when water is plentiful, store it in the ASR well, and then draw it back out in times when additional water is needed.
The water department typically processes and stores its excess water during winter months, when there is less demand from the public.
In order to store the water, though, it has to be treated first. Last year’s 70-day process of drawing, treating and storing excess water incurred about $8,000 in lab fees alone.
If daily water usage increases, Metternich said, the process could take even longer next year.
“The following year, if history proves right, and it goes up another 100,000, we’re looking at an excess of 360,000 gallons. That puts us at 108-110 days to inject that water,” said Metternich.
Additional processing days mean additional costs.
If the city’s 267 homeowners with irrigation meters pay the minimum fee year round, it will bring an additional $21,000 into the city’s coffers to help cover those costs, but even the uncovered expense is not Metternich’s biggest concern.
“We have an average daily flow of 1.1 million gallons, but we ran 1.5 to 1.8 million every single day this last summer,” Metternich said. “You can look at that and think we (are using) 500,000 to 800,000 gallons a day strictly in irrigation.”
Therefore, the city has two bigger reasons to encourage water conservation. First, only two water sources are tied to the ASR well, and if something were to go wrong with one or both of them, the water plant might not have enough water to meet peak demand. Second, if ever a new water facility is needed, its design would be based on the plant’s highest peak demand, not its average daily flow.
“So we have the potential to be required to build a bigger plant,” clarified council member Chris Hoffman.
Metternich confirmed that is the case.
“If (consumers) do use more, then when we design something new, everyone will be paying for it for many years in the future,” Metternich said.
Further, Metternich noted, if the water plant is forced to run at full capacity all the time, “that’s hard on it,” he said. “Things do fail and occasionally wear out.”
The city concedes it takes a great deal of water to establish lawns on a new construction site, so the ordinance provides a one-time sewer fee credit for up to 25,000 gallons of water used to irrigate new sod or seed.
“We got specific data from a sod company for how many gallons it takes to water a lawn so sod could be established,” said North Liberty City Administrator Ryan Heiar.
Residents may still install and use a separate water meter– and pay the increased costs– if they choose. For example, one resident wanted to run his outdoor water through a separate meter so he did not have to put it through his water softener, Heair said.
“They could still do that,” said Heiar. “They will just have to pay water and sewer on it.” Homeowners would also incur the expense of removing an existing irrigation meter.
Only one resident approached the council podium to ask questions about the proposed change, but said Metternich answered most of them already.
The council voted 3-2 to accept the first reading of the ordinance amendment, with councilors Coleen Chipman and Terry Donahue voting against it. Chipman said she wanted more time to consider its impact, while Donahue said he feels if conservation is the real goal, then future irrigation should be banned all together for new construction.
The council is expected to vote on the second reading of the ordinance amendment at its next regular meeting Jan. 21. (The meeting was changed to a Monday to accommodate council and city administration members attending a League of Cities event).
“I know it’s an unpopular change in ordinance. I have received a handful of emails and some feel it is unjust, but we do incur those costs. With the growth of the city and increased demand, we are going to have to make choices,” Metternich concluded.