By Robert Willert, executive director of DELCORA
This piece originally appeared as a guest column in the Delaware County Daily Times.
In sports, business or, in our case, government, when the rules change, everything changes. This is what happened to DELCORA, Delaware County’s regional water quality control authority, in 2000, when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) changed the regulations on how combined sewer systems like in Chester and Philadelphia must now be managed.
These regulatory changes commonly called unfunded mandates require costly changes, but they don’t come with any extra government funding. Despite our efforts to fight these changes, we were ordered by the Justice Department in 2015 to comply with these new expensive regulations.
Our recent and unexpected costs, based on these EPA changes, have two main parts. The first part is what it will cost to fix the Chester combined sewer systems estimate to approximately $87 million. The costlier second part is the bill we will be getting from the Philadelphia Water Department (PWD). Because PWD manages the eastern part of our wastewater flow, we are required to pay a portion of their costs. PWD recently informed us that our anticipated bill to fund part of its LTCP (Long Term Control Plan) ballooned from $178 million to $605 million. Given this startling and unanticipated increase, we are concerned that the number could go even higher and we have no ability to prevent it.
Over the course of the last four years, we have developed an LTCP to demonstrate how we will implement the new regulations. This plan was then presented and explained at four public meetings in 2016-18. While we have not yet received final approval from the EPA for our plan, we now estimate that the LTCP will cost us almost $700 million.
In the face of this large, urgent and unexpected bill that will need to be paid over the next 10 years, DELCORA began to explore alternative ways to manage these costs to avoid large and sudden rate increases to our customers. This exploration led to our current, non-binding letter of intent with Aqua Pennsylvania. Our goal in these discussions is to determine whether a merger with Aqua will allow us to stabilize rates over a longer period of time for the benefit of our ratepayers. In addition, we also mandated that all DELCORA jobs be preserved and that the quality of our service continues to be maintained at its current high level.
Some have asked why DELCORA wasn’t put out for bid to any interested parties. The answer is simple. We were not seeking the highest bidder. In that type of process, the ratepayers get socked with the bill. Our goal was to stabilize rates over a longer period of time and to find a highly qualified, experienced and reputable partner who was already familiar with our community. Aqua already has experience in wastewater management and already has 150,000 customers in Delaware County. However, no final decisions have been made. We have continued to consult with all of our stakeholders.
In fact, since we announced this letter of intent on July 16, we have organized an open and transparent process of consultation with numerous groups and individuals. In almost 20 different meetings, we have asked employees, municipalities and elected officials for their input. This input has been invaluable in posing additional questions to Aqua. While no final decision has been made, DELCORA must act now due to the 10-year timeline to implement these complex changes.
Now, it’s your turn to get involved. On Sept. 4 and Sept. 11 we will host two community open houses and each include an open forum to get your input. The first open house will be at Springfield Country Club on Sept. 4 from 6:30-8:30 p.m. The second open house will be at the Chester Community Charter School’s Rondae Hollis-Jefferson Gymnasium on Sept. 11 from 6:30-8:30 p.m. Please join us.