Williams infrastructure: '130 years worth of projects'
WILLIAMS, Ariz. - Like most cities, Williams is facing the challenge of how to replace its aging infrastructure. But unlike most cities, Williams is also facing a water crisis, which means any money that may have gone toward improving roads and the water system is now being directed toward finding a new water supply.
Because of an unusually dry winter, the city declared a water crisis and implemented the highest level of water restrictions on Feb. 25. Finding a new well has taken precedence over plans to fix leaky water lines, inaccurate water meters, and pothole-ridden streets.
Even without the water crisis, making all of the city's necessary infrastructure improvements would be an enormous task, according to City Manager Brandon Buchanan.
"People don't understand how expensive infrastructure is, whether it's a block (of pavement replacement) for $50,000 minimum or you're looking at $100 a foot of pipe when you're replacing that," he said. "So it gets real expensive real quick."
Before the city declared a water crisis at the end of February, engineers and city staff conducted a street improvement study. Based on the recommendations from that study, the cost to fix or replace pavement on every street in town came out to about $37,245,817.
"It's 130 years worth of projects," Buchanan said, adding that amount is in today's dollars. "And that's 130 years if I fix it once and then it's done. Once I fix it it's only good for at best 10 years. So unless we win the Powerball anytime soon, it's going to be an ongoing battle."
Starting March 1, 2013, Williams' sales tax rate increased from 3 percent to 3.5 percent. The money generated from the tax increase, which averages about $300,000 per year, was set aside for street repairs.
In an interview in February, Buchanan said the city would have to decide whether to fix a larger amount of the streets in moderate disrepair to preserve them before they got any worse or fix a smaller amount of the streets in severe disrepair that saw heavier traffic.
However, the street improvement project is currently on hold and the $300,000 planned for the improvements is now going toward finding a new water source.
But Williams residents will see improvements on two blocks of streets that see heavy traffic thanks to some money from a county tax. At a March 27 City Council meeting, members unanimously approved using about $200,000 of funding reserved for flood control uses for four projects, two of which are street related. The money will pay for the reconstruction of Second and Third streets between Railroad Avenue and Route 66. Besides removing and replacing the asphalt, the project will also include improvements to the drainage works on those blocks.
The other projects are drainage improvements at Third Street and Grant Avenue and sidewalk and gutter replacement at Fifth Street and Hancock Avenue.
The work on the projects is set to start in early summer. However, any other street repair projects will have to wait until the water crisis is resolved.
When city workers went to fix a leak on the west side of town recently, they exposed about 20 feet of pipe and found that length of pipe had about 11 clamps.
"That's what we've always had to do is just put the temporary fix on it, but the temporary fixes have always become permanent," Buchanan said. "So you know it's where do we come up with the money to do the permanent fixes?"
Buchanan said that small section of pipe is likely indicative of the city's water infrastructure as a whole.
"Not just here but everywhere, infrastructure-especially water and wastewater-once it's buried it's pretty well forgotten," Buchanan said. "As long as water's coming out of the tap, it's okay, everything's working fine. But there's no end because it is so expensive, it makes it hard to be proactive on any of this stuff."
Buchanan estimates replacing the Dogtown water line alone, which extends from Dogtown Lake and the two wells into town, would cost about $3.5 million. The water lines for the distribution system within town would also be costly to replace.
"We've got pipes in the ground that are 100 years old that were never intended to be there for 100 years," Buchanan said. "But that's every small town."
One of the major projects that needs to be addressed within the water system is a water meter replacement program. Water meters start to under-register the amount of water customers use as the meters age. After testing 21 residential meters recently, staff found that on average the meters were reading with 72 percent accuracy.
"Even if we are able to increase our (water) supply, we don't want to just be losing that with leaks and not metering and all this other stuff that is going on," Buchanan said. "How many businesses can give away 30 percent of their revenue and be okay with that?"
Buchanan added that he believes the 72 percent accuracy figure is on the low side, since no commercial meters were tested.
"The inaccuracy speeds up on those because there's more water going through them," he said.
Buchanan estimated it might cost in the $1 million range to replace all of the city's meters, both commercial and residential.
Last week the city council approved a proposal from a well company in Chino Valley for installing a new pump and other equipment at the Rodeo Well for $416,015 (see related story). The money originally slated for street repairs will go toward covering this unexpected cost.
"We're going to scrape the bottom of every barrel we have and come up with $400,000 because that's what needs to be done," Buchanan said.
After the equipment is installed and the city pumps the Rodeo Well for 30 days, officials will take water samples. At that point, the city can determine if it will be economically feasible to treat the water from the Rodeo Well based on the arsenic, carbon dioxide and dissolved oxygen levels.
"Like a lot of what we do it's an expensive gamble," Buchanan said.
If it is not viable for the city to use the Rodeo Well, officials will use the pump and other equipment for another well.
A company recently completed a geophysical study of two possible well sites on Garland Prairie Road and South Road. The study used radar to map underground structures and determine where water was likely to be located. It will take about two weeks until the city receives the data from the studies, which cost about $40,000 total.
Potential funding sources
While the problems with the city's infrastructure are clear, finding the money to pay for them is not.
At the May 8 City Council meeting, members directed staff to apply for funding from the Water Infrastructure Financing Authority. Buchanan said the situation could come down to taking out a loan for the water meter replacement program, and then using the additional money generated from the new accurate meters to finance a loan for a larger project.
"So you take out a $1 million loan to generate an additional $400,000 a year maybe that you could then pledge toward a larger loan to pay for a well or the Dogtown line or whatever it is," he said. "You're basically taking out one loan so you can finance a project that'll get you enough financing to finance a bigger project."
Impact fees may also help pay for some improvements in the long run. Although Williams has suspended the issuance of any new building permits during the water crisis, the city council approved an ordinance at its March 13 meeting to allow three exceptions: if the council has already granted a water allocation and the impact fees have already been paid, if the construction will not have any new fixture units connected to the city's potable water supply, and if the permit application was submitted and in process before the city implemented level four water restrictions.
The Love's Travel Stop at Grand Canyon Boulevard north of Interstate 40 and two hotels planned for Seventh Street near the Winchester Steakhouse qualify under these exceptions and will generate an estimated $714,000 in water and wastewater impact fees and permit fees.
"You look around and you can see that the current tax base isn't going to support the repairs that we need obviously," Buchanan said. "If our budget can only afford $300,000 and we've got $37 million in just streets, we need to broaden that tax base."
While finding a new water source is currently the city's primary objective, the infrastructure problem is still a priority.
"We're doing the best we can with what we've got, like always," Buchanan said.