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How can York County meet its water needs?

County and municipal leaders will revisit talks next year about how best to meet York County's growing demand for efficient and affordable water and sewer services.

York County residents receive water and sewer through a tangle of service providers resulting in inconsistent standards and costs to customers, county leaders say. To remedy these issues and prepare for expected growth, county leaders are calling for a regional approach.

Soon a consultant will identify ways to improve how water and sewer services are distributed in the county, including the associated costs, benefits and drawbacks.

The plan comes at a tense time between the Carolinas over water rights. South Carolina recently settled a U.S. Supreme Court case brought against North Carolina over the states' rights to use water in the Catawba River.

At a meeting with community leaders last month, County Manager Jim Baker heralded water as the most important challenge facing York County, one of the fastest growing counties in the state.

"There's not enough water in this area to cover all the projected growth," he said. "We're adding people in the community all the time, and unless we address that, we're going to wind up having water restricting growth," he said.

Leaders countywide talked seriously about water and sewer seven or eight years ago, said Fort Mill Town Manager David Hudspeth, but no plans emerged.

"It seemed that all the water and sewer providers felt like they still needed to be in business with their systems the way they were," he said.

The plan also comes as Fort Mill faces a deadline. Fort Mill only has four years left on its water contract with Rock Hill. It also has a permit to draw water from the Catawba, which makes building its own plant possible, Hudspeth said.

Having grown rapidly, Fort Mill now has the customers and the demand to support a new treatment plant, and with its contract with Rock Hill about to expire, a decision needs to be made, he said.

"It takes four years to design and build a plant, so we're right on the edge" of that time frame, he said. "We're talking in terms of months. We've got to know."

How to move forward

One problem the study will address is the complicated way water and sewer services are delivered to customers.

Currently, Rock Hill, York and Fort Mill each has its own wastewater treatment plant and all have drinking water facilities except Fort Mill, which gets water from Rock Hill.

Clover gets water and sewer service from Gastonia, N.C., until the year 2021.

The county buys water from Rock Hill, Fort Mill and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities and sells it wholesale to Tega Cay and Lake Wylie, whose residents also purchase water from a private provider.

Making matters more confusing, providers often have pipes running side by side.

Reducing or consolidating providers and eliminating duplication of services will allow customers to be better served, leaders have said.

As the county grows, a lack of infrastructure also will present problems, said Mark Kettlewell, York County engineer.

The county has none of its own treatment facilities. One goal of the upcoming study is to explore new sources of water for county customers such as the Broad River in western York County, Kettlewell said.

Of course, that option comes with great preparation and costs in building facilities, running additional pipes and considering the impact of such a system, he said.

Then there's the time it takes to implement such a system.

Just getting a permit to pump water is a long, drawn-out process, Hudspeth said.

Providing for the region?

Both county and Rock Hill officials have said allowing the city to become the regional provider is a viable option, though both sides have concerns.

Rock Hill runs a water treatment plant with a capacity of 36 million gallons a day, expandable to 60 million gallons, assistant city manager Jimmy Bagley said.

The city also has property on Lake Wylie where it could build another plant.

In addition to its city residents, Rock Hill provides water and sewer services beyond city limits for about twice the in-city rate. It also sells water to the county and other municipalities at a wholesale rate comparable to what city customers pay.

Taking on more customers isn't out of the question, Bagley said. In fact, the city has ways of recouping the cost of new infrastructure, such as impact fees for new customers.

"We pretty much are the wholesale providers to everyone around."

"But there are a lot of options out there," Bagley said. "Does the county want to get out of the business? Are they suggesting the city just take over all the systems? Until we meet we don't really know."

Another option is all the stakeholders could pool money and resources, "and everyone can own parts of the system, and offer everyone the same rates," Bagley said.

But that model raises concerns for Rock Hill: It costs more to serve customers the farther away they are, he said.

"We want to make sure our inside city customers are protected and their rates don't go up," he said.

In contrast, the county's priorities are to find the "best, most economical way to give service to the residents in the outer part of the county at the lowest possible price," Kettlewell said.

Aligning everyone's priorities might be the most difficult part of the process, leaders have said.

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