A couple of years ago, the State Legislature passed the Distressed and Failing Utilities Improvement Act. The Public Service Commission is charged with carrying out the actions codified in that legislation. The idea is to ensure that the people of West Virginia have clean, reliable water and sanitary sewer service.
Many of the state’s smaller water and wastewater utility companies struggle with aging infrastructure that can no longer adequately meet customers’ needs. Pipes crack, equipment wears out or breaks down and the repairs are expensive. Most of these utilities serve a small customer base that can’t fund major repairs or improvements.
Some systems are so old that there are no maps to show exactly where their pipes are located. That means that a cracked pipe can lose thousands of gallons of water before utility workers can even find the leak, much less repair it. The utility has already paid to treat the water that is lost, but if it never makes it to the customers, there is no way for the utility to recoup that investment. Every drop of lost water is also money that is lost, which exacerbates the financial struggles of the utility and compounds customers’ problems.
There has been some relief on that front with the infrastructure funding that has been recently made available by the federal government. Much of it comes into the state through the West Virginia Infrastructure and Jobs Development Council. But in many cases, even that is not enough to make all the necessary repairs and upgrades to systems that have suffered in disrepair for decades.
The Distressed and Failing Utilities Improvement Act offers solutions for water and wastewater utilities that can no longer afford to operate adequately. If a utility is determined to be distressed or failing, the PSC has a number of options to remedy the situation. If it is possible to bring the utility back to efficient operation, we may help design and oversee a path to recovery. There may be a stronger utility that can partner with the distressed utility to implement a program that lets the two work together to provide needed services. Or a stronger utility may be able to take over the struggling company and finally provide good service to the customers.
The goal of the PSC is to see that more small communities throughout the state will have reliable water and wastewater services.
Charlotte Lane is the chair of the West Virginia Public Service Commission.