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As Columbia seeks water bond, major electric project still not built

As city seeks water bond, major...

COLUMBIA, Mo. - Residents in Columbia are still waiting for new electric transmission upgrades promised in a 2015 utility bond issue that raised bills by 3 percent so far, while the city crafts a new bond issue for the water system.

ABC 17 News has reported on Columbia Water and Light's intention to ask voters to borrow money for water treatment plant expansion in 2018. The plant may not be able to handle the city's water usage by 2023, according to an assessment done by consulting firm Black & Veatch. While city staff have not said how much the bond issue would be for, or how much it might raise utility rates if approved, the water treatment expansion is estimated to cost $40 million.

Voters approved a $63 million electric bond issue in 2015, aimed at several capital projects throughout town. Of that issue, $36 million went towards funding a new transmission line project in south Columbia. The city council nixed that particular plan after residents living along the route pushed back against the placement of the poles along Nifong Boulevard. The council then tasked Columbia Water and Light in May to review a plan to upgrade existing lines in north Columbia, an idea spearheaded by Mayor Brian Treece.

In that time, Columbia utility bills went up by 3 percent to help pay for the bonds. They are set to go up again in 2017 and 2018 another 3 percent. The transmission line project remains under review by staff, and needs input from neighboring utility companies, said department spokeswoman Connie Kacprowicz. The city is close to signing a contract with Ameren to review Treece's plan.

"We will have to pay about $10,000 for them to do that work, the modeling work, to see if that would work, and then they would come back to us with an answer on whether that would be feasible or not from their perspective," Kacprowicz said.

Voters last approved a water bond issue in 2008. The city employed the help of a citizen-led Integrated Water Resource Planning group to recommend how the plant should expand. A public presentation Wednesday explained the plant's situation, and recommended the city expand the plant to allow for another 16 million gallons a day and encourage water conservation.

Group member Ben Ross said he favored that option. It provides the city the longest term solution to its growing water needs, he said, and will end up costing the city less over time. With 16 million gallons more a day coming through, the plant could stand to close off some parts of its operation for maintenance and keep providing the city enough water.

"We're close to our capacity right now, and we really need to start moving ahead with funding and planning and finding something the community will support," Ross said.

Others at the meeting pushed for a deeper look at water conservation methods to avoid a costly capital expense in expanding the plant. The city's use of water for purposes like landscaping could come from other sources to relieve stresses on the plant, said former Water and Light advisory board member Tom O'Connor. Still others asked the city also prioritize its water quality review as part of the process.

Ross said he hoped residents would still support the water bond issue despite the holdup of the electric project.

"I know we need the water, so we need to pay for it somehow," Ross said.

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