Originally created 08/17/99

City lessens restrictions on watering



Sunday's rain in Augusta brought welcome relief to lawns and gardens -- and to city water officials, allowing them to lift a outdoor watering ban Monday for part of south Richmond County.

Utilities Director Max Hicks lifted the ban that had been in effect between Bobby Jones Expressway south to Spirit Creek and from U.S. Highway 1 on the west to Doug Barnard Parkway on the east.

Residents in that area now are under odd-even restrictions and may water outdoors one hour on their designated day, Mr. Hicks said.

"That will give us data that we need for another week on how that area does under one-hour odd-even watering situations," he said. "Then, if we can go to the odd-even period with no restriction, we'll do that."

The rest of Augusta is under odd-even restrictions.

Odd-even restrictions mean residents whose addresses end with an odd number can water on odd days of the month.

But predictions are for more drought into next year. That is expected to tax the city's water distribution and storage systems, which need at least $70 million worth of improvements. And this does not take into account the millions that will be needed for sewer system improvements.

City officials said they hope to borrow an additional $40 million to $50 million through a water-revenue bond issue next year. The rest of the needed money would come from a 1 cent special-purpose sales tax -- if the tax is extended by voters next year.

Water rates will go up 1.5 percent April 1. And in 2001, water customers will be called on to help pay off the bond debt with a much larger rate increase, officials said.

Meanwhile, Mr. Hicks has proposed a pared-down $30 million utilities operating budget for next year in hopes of assuring New York bond officials that Augusta can abide by the terms of its previous $66.6 million bond issue.

The money from that 1996 bond issue is being used to construct the 60-inch water line from Augusta Canal to the water treatment plant on Highland Avenue.

The terms of that issue put limits on the amount of money the city could divert from water and sewer revenues to the city's general fund. Next year the limit is $1 million, but Mr. Hicks said he could not balance the department's budget if that much is taken out.

Siphoning off money from the water department to keep the city running created many of the current problems with the water system, Mr. Hicks said.

The former city of Augusta transferred $80 million from water and sewer revenues to keep the city running during the nine years before consolidation. Repairs to water and sewer facilities and equipment were neglected because there was no money for them, Mr. Hicks said.

Last summer, the main turbine and backup pumping equipment at the pumping station failed, triggering months of outdoor restrictions and bans. This year, the shortages have centered in the Tobacco Road area, where the demand has outstripped the city's capacity to provide water during peak usage times.

Friday, the Faircrest tank at Tobacco Road and U.S. Highway 25 dipped dangerously low for the first time in 10 years, Mr. Hicks said.

To keep the year 2000 budget at $30 million, many needs have been postponed, Mr. Hicks said.

"We will not buy new trucks. We did not provide sewer to additional pockets of unsewered areas. We did not buy a new utility billing system or put our customer-service division in one facility," Mr. Hicks said.

"And there were other water-line expansion projects we did not put into this budget," he said. "But what we did do is be sure we can meet the conditions of our bond covenants, so that when we go to the lending institutions they will know we are people of our word."

Sylvia Cooper can be reached at (706) 823-3228 or sylviaco@augustachronicle.com.

Budget proposal

Here are projects that will be discussed for possible inclusion in the city's next water-revenue bond issue:

*A new raw-water pumping station, $12 million to $13 million

*A new water treatment plant, $30 million to $40 million

*Expansion of the existing water-treatment plant, $5 million to $6 million

*Large water distribution lines in south Augusta to supply the area with water from the Savannah River, cost not yet undetermined

*Several large, elevated water storage tanks to meet peak demands in south and west Augusta, $800,000 each.

*Pockets of unsewered areas, $10 million

*Sewer line extensions, cost not yet determined