Water and Sewer Increases Are Part of Larger Story

Anyone who gets a bill from the Boston Water and Sewer Commission (BWSC) might have noticed over the last few years that those bills have steadily gone up.

In fact, since 2013, rates have increased by nearly 14 percent, and by 5.05 percent just this year.

For the average homeowner in Charlestown, that can likely mean more than a $100 increase over a year, and that coming after a series of years where there were little to no increases in rates.

According to Sean Canty, a spokesman for the BWSC, rate increases have come, but the story of those rate increases is not increasing costs within the Commission. Rather, it’s about increasing MWRA rates and the little-reported – or perhaps unknown – consent decree put on the BWSC by the federal government – a move that is as costly as it has been time consuming.

“We are working with about 61 percent of our total expenses going to our purchase of MWRA water and sewer services,” Canty said. “Their amounts have gone up just about the same rate as our increases did. They’re a point of so within one another. I can assure you our operational expenses have continued to decline. It’s been a balancing act. Our water usage amounts in the City of Boston have gone down 25 percent across the board. We try to run an efficient operation and a very lean operation compared to what it could be.”

While the BWSC administers services and maintains the infrastructure in Charlestown and the rest of Boston, it gets its water from the MWRA and pays to pump its sewage to the MWRA Deer Island Treatment Plant. All of its usage of water and shipments of sewage are measured and the MWRA charges the Commission appropriately based on rates that it sets for the entire MWRA system. Those rates are applied to the measurements and that results in what is called annual MWRA charges – which the BWSC has no control over.

What the BWSC does have control over is operations expenses and capital projects – which result in borrowing and, naturally, debt service payments.

Saddled on to the BWSC, however, is an expensive consent decree from the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to correct historic violations of the Clean Water Act. Though that’s a vague type of citation, the specifics are that it requires a tremendous capital investment to do costly sewer separation projects (separating the storm water drains from the sewer system) and other underground improvements, such as lining crumbling sewer pipes and replacing older water lines.

That consent decree adds a tremendous amount of debt to the BWSC, which is reflected in rates.

The debt on the BWSC, along with its normal operations expenses, amounts to some 39 percent of the Commission’s total expenses, and is largely reflected in water and sewer rates.

“We are under a consent decree,” Canty said. “We are mandated to do sewer separation. We take advantage of the fact that we have to do this in a timely manner and get it done because the EPA is watching us…We’re under a court order to do that…One positive is we have a great bond rating for borrowing. Those projects have also led to improvements in the area beaches. We used to have beaches that were closed a lot…Now we’re at close to 96 percent of the beaches being open at all times.”

The most current rate increase of 5.05 percent went into effect on the January bill.

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