Sodaville water crisis a costly affair

When wells run dry, city staff scramble to fund the purchase of Lebanon water

By Sarah Brown
Lebanon Local

The Sodaville City Council at its Dec. 21 meeting found itself needing to move money around and raise water rates to pay its bills.

According to City Administrator/Recorder Alex McHaddad, the cost to purchase and haul water from the City of Lebanon in the past month cost Sodaville as much as $22,000. In addition to other general bills, the city’s bills this month totalled $32,000. They only had $21,000 in the bank. As such, the council transferred $25,000 from its Local Government Investment Pool to its operating account.

“We need to, one, have enough money to pay for that, and also have enough money left over to keep paying the bills that come through next month,” McHaddad told the council. “This leaves us in a really healthy position to be able to pay things.”

But that’s not the end of their problems with water. Until an anticipated new well is completed in 2025, the city expects to continue facing water woes during its dry season.

The City of Sodaville provides water to its residents through a number of wells. While it has been common for the city to find their wells dry from time to time, it appears the recent deep drawdown at Green Peter may have played a role in its recent crisis. As Green Peter began refilling at the start of December, Public Works Director JD Burns informed the council that the wells were beginning to see an uptick in water.

According to Council President Roger Perry — who said he started serving on the council a year after the city’s water system was installed — Sodaville started with one well in the early 1980s, and it currently has four functional wells. He said the wells are filled from “fracture water” through rocks; there are no aquifers in Sodaville.

Water treated in Lebanon is often sold to Sodaville.

Council members agreed the city has been hauling water in from Lebanon for about two or three decades, as needed, though there have been some years during that time when it wasn’t necessary. McHaddad said the wells tend to run dry between June through January. According to Council Member Adina Olivares, during a heavy fire season in the state a couple years ago, they struggled to find available trucks to haul water in for them. In August 2023, the City hired Sodaville local Ray Jackman for hauling service and, since, found the cost for his services to be much better than what they previously were paying.

Even still, the City of Sodaville found itself spending approximately $20,000 a month to truck water in this year and, since August, they had spent more than $62,000 on the provisions.

The council has been reworking its water rates throughout this past year in an attempt to not only help pay for the expense, but also curb excess use of water by its residents. In February 2023, the council approved an ordinance to raise its base rate of water use from $45 to $47 (the added $2 was to be moved into the LGIP reserve funds), and added multiple tiers of water usage rates.

Water restrictions have been a common occurrence in the city over the years and, in October 2023, residents were capped at 7,500 gallons a month. However, households could apply for a $60 permit to go beyond the cap.

A water tank sits on a hill above Sodaville.

As the wells ran dry toward the end of 2023, however, the council found the City was actually losing money as it spent about $20,000 a month to haul in water but only received approximately $17,000 a month from users. During a Dec. 11 work session, the council discussed how to tackle the problem.

McHaddad informed them they had $64,000 budgeted for water hauling but needed another $40,000 to get them through the rest of the season. He was able to find $30,000 from the previous year’s budget surplus, a contingency fund and some cuts, but they still fell $10,000 short. That, he said, could either come from reserve funds or increased water rates.

McHaddad determined that water usage in excess of 5,000 gallons in October brought $3,101.89 in revenue, but the actual cost to the city for the water (which was purchased from Lebanon and hauled in) was $10,470.74.

“To me, from a financial perspective, it makes no sense to sell water and not recapture what we’re selling it for,” Olivares said. “It doesn’t make sense to say, ‘This is only going to cost you $5, but it costs me $15.’”

McHaddad suggested that households using more than 5,000 gallons of water a month during the water restriction period be charged nine cents per gallon once they go over that usage. He determined that would result in an extra $7,500 in revenue per month and, thus, a total of $15,000 in two months’ time that would cover the needed $10,000.

City Council meet with its administrator to discuss funding water during a work session on Dec. 11.

“Raising water rates may result in higher payments from some users and lower use from other users,” he said. “Both changes in behavior benefit the City’s financial position. If users use more water, the revenue will increase to accommodate the water acquisition fees. If users use less water, the water acquisition costs will decrease.”

A long discussion ensued during the work session, with some preferring a water rate increase while others preferred pulling from the reserves. They also noted how some residents were conserving their water usage while other households were not.

“I hate to see these people take another hit,” Councilor Joseph Parsons said of the more frugal users. “Some of the people that are using 10,000 gallons of water, they’re the ones that are putting us in an issue. They’re the ones that are causing so much water to be brought in.”

In the end, the council came up with a compromise and, at its Dec. 21 City Council meeting, approved an ordinance to charge four cents per gallon over the 7,500 cap during restrictions, and eliminate the permit for usage over 7,500 gallons. At a future time, the council will discuss water rates for the coming year.

“This is all necessary because, as of this month, we’ve spent more money on water hauling than we have brought in. It’s bad,” McHaddad said. “That’s why we’re making all these cuts. That’s why we’re appropriating unanticipated funds now, and just kind of putting the city on a diet.”

Also at the meeting:

  • The council agreed to allow McHaddad to reduce his hours in February and March, during which time he will be working in the State Capital;
  • McHaddad announced he would be looking for work elsewhere this year as soon as the City’s finances are stable. The decision comes because he would like to start a family with his wife and the Sodaville position would not provide insurance coverage for her pregnancy.