The Idaho Public Utilities Commission staff will oversee Suez Water’s efforts to address the long-running issue of brown water coming from Boise Bench faucets.And a big proposed rate increase might not be quite as large.
This agreement comes after Bench residents Rep. John Gannon, D-Boise, Stephanie Montero and Karoline Philip, intervened last November in the water company’s bid to increase rates 22.3% filed last year.
After several meetings with the Public Utilities Commission staff, the Bench customers reached an agreement to withdraw their objection to the rate increase in exchange for state oversight into the company’s management of the problem.
A persistent issue
Brown water on the Boise Bench has been an issue for years. Suez officials say the combination of aging pipes, mineral heavy water coming from wells and dead ends caused by the canals crisscrossing the area fuel the problem. Gannon, who said the issue impacts his house, held several town halls with concerned neighbors and Suez to push for solutions in 2019.
Then came the rate increase request. Gannon said they filed the intervention to push the company toward quicker action on remedying the issue, which regularly stains fixtures and causes residents to spend large amounts on their water bills to flush out the bad water.
Suez offers credits to residents who report brown water to help cover the cost of running their water for long periods of time to flush it out. But impacted customers said the issue is so frequent they often don’t have time to call and get the credit on their bill every time.
“This has been something that’s been going on for years and every year it seemed like it was getting worse and we weren’t getting the attention that we should be getting,” Gannon said. “Other neighborhoods don’t have this problem.”
What will the state monitor?
The memorandum of understanding requires the Public Utilities Commission staff to “track, investigate, monitor, evaluate” and provide a monthly report of progress on brown water. The area includes the neighborhoods between Vista Avenue and Roosevelt Street, West of Morris Hill Cemetery, areas with complaints near Broadway Avenue, and anywhere else where brown water remains a consistent issue.
Suez spokesperson Jane Kreller said the water company voluntarily kept the PUC staff updated on all of its progress on addressing the brown water and this agreement will formalize their relationship. Suez will spend a combination of $2.3 million between 2020 and 2021 on the problem.
“SUEZ has put together a comprehensive plan to fix bench water concerns that addresses dramatically lowering instances of discolored water in the short term and adding more permanent fixes in planned near-term projects. We’re confident in the plan and we welcome any input the PUC can provide on its execution.
The PUC staff task force will review Suez’s plans to address water quality, review the company’s work to remedy lines that abruptly end and collect rust and debris, as well as replacement of aging pipes. They will also be reviewing the company’s plans for flushing, which is regularly used to clear the pipes of debris causing the discoloration.
The task force will also evaluate Suez’s plan to complete an overhaul of the Taggart Well, which provides water to the neighborhood. The City of Boise approved the well construction in September 2020 and the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality gave a green light to the plans and design at the beginning of March.
The PUC staff will monitor Suez and make sure work begins on the well in September 2021.
Other parties reach a settlement
Gannon and the Bench neighbors were not the only group who filed an intervention opposing the rate increase. Ada County, Micron Technology, the City of Boise, Suez Water Customer Group, Community Action Partnership Association of Idaho and the Idaho Fair Housing Council also filed in opposition.
On March 17, Suez, the PUC, Ada County, the City of Boise, Community Action Partnership of Idaho and Suez Water Customers Group reached a settlement over the issue. Intermountain Fair Housing Council withdrew from the intervention process, like Gannon and the Bench residents.
Under the settlement, Suez could be allowed to raise rates 8.75% over two years. This would raise an additional $3.996 million in revenue instead of the $10.2 million the company would have received under its initial rate increase proposal. This settlement is not final yet and the PUC must sign off.
If approved, the average residential customer would pay an additional $2.65 more a month or $31.8 per year. Commercial companies would pay an average of $9.40 more per month or $112.8 per year.
Kreller said it is typical for groups to file as intervenors when the water company requests a rate increase. The company says it spent more than $115 million over the past five years to improve the water system.
“Periodically, Suez must request a review by the Idaho Public Utilities Commission to assess our investments and adjust our rates so we can recoup that investment,” Kreller said. “The PUC carefully investigates every investment to ensure it was done in the best interest of the community. They also take into account public comments and intervener needs.”
The hearing for customers to share their thoughts on the increase is scheduled for April 15 at 6 p.m. You can find information on how to testify here.