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COLUMBUS—A proposed long-term transfer of control of the Polk County Water System to the upstate South Carolina’s Inman-Campobello Water District is picking up speed and a flood of complaints from local residents.
At issue is whether Polk should give much of its public water rights to the South Carolina water district — located less than 20 miles from the North Carolina state line — for the next 75 years, in exchange for improvements to and maintenance of the water system. Combined, the towns of Inman and Campobello have a population of about 3,000.
Advocates of the plan argue that it can cut major costs for Polk County, which has a relatively small population and tax base and disproportionately large water expenses, given how few customers are served by the system.
Opponents assert that the county is about to rush a giveaway of one of its most precious resources without weighing the consequences and seeking enough expert advice. They also argue that the value of the county’s water hasn’t been adequately assessed.
In January, a state commission determined that an initial plan for the water system transfer was unacceptable because of the financial risk it would place on Polk taxpayers.
After a few more drafts of the contract and a sharp rise in public criticism of the plan, Polk’s Board of Commissioners will meet next on the topic on July 20, for a meeting without public comment, where board members may reveal where they stand on the proposal.
The last commissioners meeting, on June 28, drew 29 public speakers, all of whom said they were against the plan as it’s presently presented.
System is small, already managed by ICWD
Polk County’s population is about 20,500. According to data from the North Carolina Division of Water Resources, the county-owned water system serves just 140 customers — 121 residential, 10 commercial and nine institutional.
Those figures don’t reflect the total number of people who use water from the system, however. One residential customer, for example, can have a household of several individuals within it. And some of the schools and large businesses on the system provide water to hundreds of people.
Thus far, Polk County has invested an estimated $5.5 million in tax revenues in its water system, according to county staff.
The rest of the county gets its water from a number of sources, including many private wells. The county seat, Columbus, sources water from three city-owned wells. Tryon gets its water from three local creeks and a lake, and Saluda, which straddles Polk and Henderson counties, buys its water from Henderson County.
South Carolina’s Inman-Campobello Water District, by comparison, serves 12,000 customers in upstate South Carolina, and already operates the Polk County Water System. Under its current contract, the water district will continue to run Polk’s system for seven more years.
The new proposal, if enacted, would place the water system under ICWD’s management for 75 years, and make the water district responsible for improvements to, and maintenance of, the system. The South Carolina water district would also receive all the revenues from the system, while being obligated to charge Polk water customers no more than it charges its South Carolina customers.
A complicated and changing proposal
The proposed deal between Polk County and ICWD was hatched last summer, when the county and ICWD launched discussions about a long-term transfer of the water system. An initial contract was drafted last fall, and since then, it’s undergone 384 changes, according to metadata attached to the latest version of the contract, which is 29 pages long and can be read below.
In a preamble, the contract says that Polk’s water system serves so few of the county’s residents that it is not financially feasible for the county to run its own system. It also asserts that “ICWD has a proven track record of efficient and low-cost operations and is one of the lowest cost providers of water in the area.”
The contract would establish a Joint Coordinating Committee to oversee administration of the agreement. The committee would include ICWD’s general manager, Polk’s county manager or his or her designee, two members appointed by Polk’s board of commissioners and one member appointed by the ICWD Commission.
The contract says that the committee would be subject to the laws of both North Carolina and South Carolina, and that it would be empowered to suspend the contract if it chooses to.
What would happen in the event of a cancellation of the contract has proved to be a sticky matter.
In late 2014, the state Local Government Commission, an arm of the N.C. Department of State Treasurer, reviewed the proposed contract. The commission oversees budget and spending plans for local governments throughout North Carolina to ensure compliance with state laws.
At a Jan. 8, 2015, meeting in Raleigh, three Polk County commissioners met with commission staff to hear their conclusions. Several county staff members attended as well, as ICWD General Manager Jeff Walker and two attorneys representing the water district.
According to the minutes of the meeting, Polk Board of Commissioners Chair Pack noted that the county had already invested $5 to $6 million in tax revenues for its water system. He said that “the county is looking for ICWD to take over the entire water system so the county does not have to continue to spend tax revenues on the system.”
Biff McGilvray, a senior financial analyst for the commission, said that “the county has put significant burden on the taxpayer with previous water system improvements,” and noted that “Polk County does not currently have the customer base to go into the water business, and probably never will.”
However, McGilvray cautioned that the LGC “has very strict standards when it comes to financial transactions and contract approval” for local governments, and that the contract, as drafted, didn’t pass legal muster.
If it were to go through, he said, “more of a burden could be put on the taxpayer [in Polk County] at some future date if the contract is terminated, and no one has any idea what the amount or terms would be.”
Then, Pack said “it is his hope that a contract with ICWD will prove successful, and will lead to a merger with ICWD in the future.”
McGilvray expanded on his view, saying that “the problem with the current proposed contract is that if one of the parties sees an opportunity to put the water somewhere else, or if the county wishes it had not put it with ICWD, then, in addition to the significant improvements already sitting in the capital fund that are unrecovered and undepreciated, the county would be obligated to pay for millions of dollars of more improvements which the county has no market for, so the additional burden falls back on the taxpayer.”
The meeting closed with a discussion about how ICWD “would work on restructuring the contract” to meet overcome the legal hurdles, according to the minutes.
Troubled lake, dam driving push for transfer
At present, Polk’s system sources its water from the Broad River in Rutherford County.
Anticipating future water needs, last year Polk County succeeded in getting a watershed designation from the state for the area around Lake Adger, opening the lake up as a potential reservoir. The 438-acre Lake Adger, located north of Tryon and bought by Polk County in 2008 for $1.6 million, is facing two long-term problems: an aging dam in need of repairs and encroaching sediment.
The dam is 90 years old. A state inspection conducted in late 2013 found that the dam was in “fair condition” though in need of multiple repairs. In recent years, Polk County has steadily reduced its annual appropriations to a fund for repairing the dam, which once stood at $200,000 but are now down to $50,000.
Under the proposed contract, ICWD would assume financial responsibility for dam repairs for the next 75 years.
The county system hasn’t used Adger’s waters, as yet, and it would likely take an investment in a new water processing plant to do that. Also, Lake Adger’s potential as a water source is impaired by the level of sediment that is building on its west end, where it is fed by the Green River and Panther Creek.
Polk County hired an Asheville-based environmental consulting firm, Altamont Engineering, last year to assess the need for and potential costs of dredging that part of the lake and its tributaries. In May, Altamont issued its report, which said that the west end of the lake is “severely compromised by sediment accumulation,” taking water levels down from what was once 15 feet to between six inches and five feet.
The necessary corrective action will be expensive, according to the firm.
“Dredging the west end of the lake and 1 mile of the Green River to a depth of 5 feet will cost from $2,550,000 to $5,100,000,” the report said.
Polk County Board of Commissioners Chair Tom Pack, a leading proponent of the water-system transfer plan, has cited both the dam and sediment pressures in advocating for the plan.
“In the proposed agreement, ICWD will take over dam repair and maintenance for the next 75 years,” he told the Tryon Daily Bulletin recently. “This will free up monies to spend on silt abatement.”
Mounting public opposition to the plan
As the Polk County Board of Commissioners continues to consider the proposal, its most recent meeting brought a storm of critical comments from local residents.
On June 28, the board held the second of its three scheduled meetings on the proposed deal, this one dedicated to receiving public comment on the proposal.
At the meeting, 29 residents spoke against the plan and none spoke in favor. See a video of the meeting below.
Leon Morgan, a Saluda city commissioner who oversaw his town’s water during a drought in 2007, said that, in a time of potential water scarcity, handling of local water deserves especially close attention. “We’re talking about probably the most important decision the county has to make in the almost 20 years I’ve been here,” he said.
“I suggest that we slow down,” he said. “I got to see a lot of things that actually surprised all of us, that we hadn’t had to deal with in the past. What’s going on in California is a good example of how things can get torn up in a brief period of time because of severe conditions.”
Sky Conard, a Lake Adger resident and founder of the activist group Green River Watershed Alliance, called the proposal “a one-sided contract” and “an injustice.”
The plan “would make us dependent and under the control of outside water sources,” she said. “Our board of commissioners operates in a vacuum, ignoring that we live in an era of water scarcity and are foolishly trading away our water resources.”
After the public comments, Polk County Commissioner Ray Gasperson, the board’s sole Democrat and a vocal opponent of the plan, also sounded off against it.
“I’ve got a lot of concerns related to this,” he said. “There should never be a 75-year water contract in which Polk County gives up primary control of our water sources and the potential revenues of our water system to a South Carolina entity, such as ICWD, or any outside entity.” He urged his fellow commissioners to slow the process down and seek outside advice.
Polk’s board of commissioners will take up the topic next at its July 20 meeting, where it will discuss the matter without public comment.