NBC4 Investigates: Rising Water Rates

Water may be the building block of life, but in small Ohio towns, it's killing the budget.

Water rates are going through the roof, and all indications are that they will only go higher.

But there are some possible solutions – that not everyone is going to like.

The plants, pipes and portals that bring our water from the wells, rivers and lakes to our faucets are falling apart.

Many of them were built in the early part of the last century and so much has changed since then.

“In order to bring the infrastructure, the pipes, the valves, the hydrants, the treatments up to where they ought to be in the next 20 years, the society of civil engineers estimates in excess of $12 billion statewide,” said Ed Kolodziej Jr., Aqua Ohio president.

Nowhere will that pinch be felt as much as small town Ohio.

Kara Strong lives in Cardington in Morrow County. She has some of the highest water and sewer bills in the state.

“A good bill would be $120 and it's been $170, I would say would be the highest,” Strong said.

That's almost three times what someone would pay in Columbus.

“They passed an ordinance, 3 percent increase every year for eternity. I figured it up, my water bill in 2016 would be $253 a month. I can't afford that,” said Bill Christian, a Cardington resident.

There are at least three reasons for the prices, but one of the main factors is an example of economies of scale.

It's similar to a small mom-and-pop shop trying to compete against Wal-Mart.

There's a fixed cost to run a utility, and it's cheaper to spread it around.

“If you're serving 100 customers off plant, you still have one operator. You have to run the basic electric, all the chemicals to run the plant, where if you have 10,000 or 100,000 off the same plant, basically the fixed costs are similar,” said Glenn Marzluf, general manager of Del-Co Water.

In Cardington, for example, there are 700 customers of the municipal water system.

At Del-Co, which furnishes water just outside the town, there are 44,000 customers.

Another factor is the deteriorating infrastructure.

In Cardington, officials have borrowed millions of dollars to bring the system up to code for the 700 customers.

They're one of the first, but other small towns will have to follow.

“My father was on the board of public affairs 40 years ago, and I want to blame him because those people did not look forward. They did not plan for the future. They kept the water rates just as low as they could, and they were the heroes, and so now we have to replace, rebuild, and it costs money,” said Cardington Mayor Susan Peyton.

The third factor, there are also more regulations than ever before, and fewer federal dollars to help pay for upkeep.

What's a solution?

Quick fix repairs will only last a few more years.

One solution is selling out to a larger entity like Aqua Ohio or Del-Co.

That's what Christian, a former mayor of Cardington has been preaching at council meetings, where the main topic is the high water rates.

“Maybe it needs to be Wal-Mart-ed, you know what I'm saying? Instead of the mom-and-pop, five and ten-cent story that we used to know when we was kids,” Christian said.

But that assumes a larger entity would even want it.

It's another chapter in a small town losing its roots.

“We're the local owners, I think we would care about our system more than someone outside,” said Danny Wood, village administrator.

“When it comes to merging into a municipal, a small village for example, could be succumbed into a bigger entity. When they do that, perhaps they may lose some level of autonomy,” Kolodziej said.

In Cardington, parents are having their children shower at school, and scrimping on water to save money. But small town Ohio hasn't seen anything yet.

“As long as you turn the tap on, you flush the toilet, things happen like they're supposed to, there is not a great interest to invest in this infrastructure, but it's failing just the same, and it needs done,” Marzluf said.

Cardington is not alone. According to the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, in Johnstown annual water rates have grown from $605 a year in 2001 to more than $800 a year in 2011 – according to the most recent survey.

Marysville has seen rates rise from a little more than $500 per year at the start of the decade to $964 in 2011.

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