2014-11-20 / Editorial

Viewpoint

Expanding the rural water district
By Bob Sutt on

Two things caught my eye in the Jamestown Press relative to the Jamestown water division. First, apparently there has been some discussion on the council that the water division in the Jamestown Public Works Department is a separate legal entity apart from the town government and is, in fact, owned by the water users.

Before proceeding on that assumption, I would hope that the Town Council asks the solicitor to research the ownership. What I believe he will find is that the water division by deed is lock, stock and barrel owned by the town of Jamestown, not the water users. The water division is not a separate corporation; and does not have the legal authority to act independent of the Town Council and town administrator, it cannot buy sell or own property, it does not have the right to sue or be sued, it cannot raise funds independent of Town Council action. Water division employees are employees of the town of Jamestown assigned by the town administrator and public works director to that division. All water division business and accounting are functions of the town finance department. Water division receipts and expenditures are organized in what I believe is called an enterprise account and all expenses and revenues are kept separate from the other financial activity of the town, but maintaining the records of all revenues and expenditures is the responsibility of the finance department.

The privately owned Jamestown Water Company and all its assets were originally purchased by the town in the late 1960s, early ’70s. The purchase and the authorization to borrow the necessary purchase price was approved by the voters of the town of Jamestown at a town meeting with the stipulation that all costs associated with the purchase and operation of the water division be borne by the users. It provided for a Board of Water Commissioners, appointed by the Town Council to oversee water operations and report to the Town Council. The commission was eliminated after the home rule charter was adopted by the voters in 1974-75 and the Town Council and town administrator assumed all responsibility for operations. The town of Jamestown is the owner of all the assets and liabilities and the responsible entity for all water division activities and for the safe, secure and continuous operation of that division. The sewer division is similarly organized.

Secondly, there is also some Town Council discussion of expanding the rural water service area for the purpose of creating additional revenues. Before the council rushes headlong into acting on that idea I would hope that they review the not-too-distant past and the necessity of installing an emergency waterline on the old Jamestown Bridge. Additionally in the late ’70s, early ’80s, there was an extended drought and all users were put on a severe water ration. In the late 1970s as the reservoir levels dropped dangerously, the Town Council hired an engineering consultant to review the reservoirs and reservoir watershed and make recommendations relative to the adequacy of both.

Walter Douglas, who retired in Jamestown, had been the chief design engineer for both the first Jamestown Bridge and the Newport Bridge, and understood that gravity, geography and engineering were central to this question. The council commissioned Mr. Douglas to research and author a reservoir and watershed report. If I remember it accurately, the Douglas report found that providing water to the existing and potential future users under normal conditions, in just the concentrated village area, placed a demand in excess of 90 percent of the capacity of the existing reservoirs and watershed and under seasonal high use summer conditions, the demand exceeded this capacity.

This report served as the basis for the Town Council adoption of the urban and rural water districts which recognized both the watershed and reservoir limitations and the council’s responsibility to deliver water dependably to existing users during all conditions including emergency conditions like a serious fire. It placed critical controls over the expansion of the rural water district specifically because of these limitations.

I do not know if that report is still around and even if it is, it may be somewhat outdated because water delivery system improvements and water conservation measures have been made over the years. However, there have been no changes to the geography of the island. The idea that expansion of the rural water district should be based on the island’s geographic and engineering limitations is not outdated. A fact-based solid understanding of the limits of our watershed and reservoir capacity should precede any council decision to expand the rural water district to additional users.

The author is a former Jamestown town administrator and town councilor.

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