Bethany officials continue to make case for water tower

Bethany Beach officials again made their case for the need for a new water tower at a public meeting on Saturday, Aug. 11, leading up to the scheduled Sept. 8 special election at which voters will get to indicate their support or disapproval of a plan to borrow up to $3.7 million in funding for the project at no more than a 3 percent interest rate.

At the sparsely attended public comment session, citizens asked about the financial planning for the project, as well as potential ways to avoid just discarding treated water — as has been the case for several years, due to the very issues driving the push for a new water tower — or even finding alternative uses for the existing standpipe, to provide a benefit for the Town the local community.

Part-time resident Molly Feliciano asked town officials about whether the Town has a fixed asset management program that allows it to plan for future infrastructure needs. Such a program has recently been introduced in a number of local municipalities, but Bethany Beach has been ahead of the curve on that, confirmed Finance Director Janet Connery.

“Yes, we do have a fixed asset management program,” she said, adding that the Town also has access to the State’s drinking water program, including the revolving fund through which it proposes to fund the new water tower.

Feliciano also asked Connery to clarify what would happen to the money the Town could potentially save by retaining the existing front-footage cost to water customers, rather than lowering it via retirement of existing debt in favor of the smaller water tower loan.

“The term of the loan would be set at 20 years. We could then choose to pay it off over the full 20 years and reduce the front footage cost,” Connery explained. Otherwise, she said, maintaining the existing front footage cost for water customers would result in paying off the loan in as little as 13 years, which would save the Town up to $300,000 over the life of the loan.

Connery emphasized that the Town’s water department funding is separate from its general fund, so the funds taken in from water customers go right back in to the operation of the water system, its maintenance and some planned expenditures for future needs.

“Given we provide water to the Salt Pond and Savannah’s Landing,” Feliciano asked, “do they also pay into” the funding for debt service?

Connery again confirmed that was the case, with all water system customers paying the front footage fee.

Finally, Feliciano asked what the potential cost savings were for an alternative option the Town had considered for the water system’s problems — adding support systems to the existing standpipe.

Town Manager Cliff Graviet said the cost estimate for that option had been set at $1 million to $1.5 million, which is less than the more realistic estimate on the current plan for a new aerial tower, set at about $2.5 million. But he emphasized that the new tower was the recommended solution for the Town’s problems with the water system, which are based on the creation of cancer-causing trihalomethanes during the water treatment and storage process.

Graviet said the existing backup generators for the water system would suffice for a few days without electricity, but he emphasized that backup power would not solve the problems that would be created over a longer term with a system that does not include a new overhead water tower. Alternate options, he said, would also result in a significantly larger footprint for the system than is expected with the new water tower.

Feliciano’s husband also had concerns about the fixed management aspect of the project, saying that he hoped the Town was getting true cost projections that would include aspects such as maintenance.

“Do I think we need a water tower? Yeah. Do I think this concept sounds good? … Yeah,” he acknowledged. “We need good pressure. We need a good system. I don’t think there’s any question about it.”

He said his only remaining issue with the project was whether the Town would move to get longer-term assurances from the contractor building the new tower and connecting it to the system.

“I just want to know … that you’ve thoroughly examined this plant. … Maybe you could try to get a two-year performance bond, in case anything goes wrong,” he said. “You’ve done a good job. This is a great move, and, generally, I like it. I like it better than a pump, even though [the pump is] cheaper. It’s better not to be so reliant on it. It’s better from an emergency standpoint.”

Discussion of the water tower last Saturday concluded with some novel suggestions from a Heron Drive resident as to how the Town could leverage the existing standpipe and the contaminated water.

He suggested the Town look into having the “tap” on the standpipe replumbed at 30 feet from the top of the standpipe, so that the existing water pressure would allow the Town to use that fresher portion of treated water without dipping in to the more aged water at the bottom of the standpipe that becomes increasingly contaminated with trihalomethanes.

Graviet replied that the Town already planned to include reengineering and replumbing of the standpipe in the construction contract for the new tower, but that the intention was to operate the standpipe and the tower codependently, with one augmenting the other at the peak of the summer season.

That, Graviet said, would allow the Town to meet the recommendations — and potential future requirements — from the State on the amount of water it has immediate access to during the summer: 1.3 million gallons of treated water. The new arrangement would provide access to 1.5 million gallons during the summer, with the standpipe used at that time and its water pumped over into the new tower.

The higher rate of turnover of the water supply in the summer generally eliminates the problem with trihalomethanes in the water, so the standpipe would be safe to use during those times, while the elevated tower alone could supply the Town in the slower periods of the year.

Graviet was also asked about the estimated 4 million gallons of treated water the Town has been discarding each year, due to the trihalomethanes it accumulates while in the bottom of the standpipe.

“That’s a shame,” the Heron Drive resident said. “Water is going to become a scare commodity. Wars are going to be fought over water in the future. How about selling it?” he suggested, pointing out potential uses for irrigation, washing streets, watering landscaping and more, and noting a $600 rate for $5,000 of untreated water he said the Town should be able to meet or beat with its discarded treated water, if it were to buy a tanker.

He also suggested the Town consider using the standpipe as a diving training facility for dive-rescue teams.

“With a little modification, it could make an excellent diving training facility,” he said.

Graviet clarified that the proposed design for the new water system involves both the new overhead tower and the existing standpipe, which would be used together to store that peak 1.5 million gallons of treated water during the summer.

“In the off-season, the standpipe will come offline and we’ll pump the water off,” he noted, adding that engineers currently anticipate there is 30 to 40 more years life left in the standpipe and that enhancement of the system is a way it can continue to be used.

“The 300,000 to 400,000 gallons we have in the overhead tower will be used in the offseason, and we will not have to pump water out of the system,” Graviet said.

Of the dive training suggestion, he added,” It’s an innovative idea, but since the standpipe is being used for water in the summer, I don’t think we will do that.”

In the future, Graviet said, he expects the Town will replace the existing standpipe with a larger aerial tower, eliminating the apparent error of design that led to the sea-level town using a land-based standpipe for its water storage and combining the water storage into a single vessel.