Water was the focal point of a Fairfield County Council work session Wednesday night, as representatives from the town of Winnsboro, from water companies serving outlying areas, from Santee Cooper and from two law firms gathered to hear an update from attorney Margaret Pope about efforts to create a Fairfield County water authority.
Pope mentioned that there was no one size fits all model for county water authorities and that they can provide either water, sewer or both water and sewer services.
“(A water authority) puts a structure in place. It says to everybody in the room, we are not just going to think about our needs when this decision is made,” she said.
Forming an authority requires change, though, and some are resistant to change.
In order for MidCounty Water Company to join the authority, it would have to change its designation to a special purpose district as a political subdivision.
Pope said a provision exists to enable that transition, but that the members of MidCounty Water must determine if they want to pursue that end.
If members pay a $5,000 fee, they can join the joint commission without having to first become an independent political entity.
Blythewood has sent in a check to join the committee. Ridgeway is still considering its options.
The Jenkinsville Water Company purchases water from MidCounty and it is unclear what the Jenkinsville Company will do at this point to meet its water needs should MidCounty join a Fairfield water authority.
No representative with the Jenkinsville Water Company was present at the meeting. Additionally, the Mitford community is in a long term contract with Chester for its water, so that community would be unable to join in a Fairfield County water authority, should one be formed.
Under a water authority, all members pay for their share of water so greater efficiency would benefit the entire water system.
Each member will have at least one representative on the commission board. Before bonds can be issued for a project, each member must go back to its governing body and approve the project.
A two-thirds vote will be needed by the water commission for bond sales.
Pope recommended that there be a contract between any agency and its members to assure the members of what service they are receiving, be it purchasing wholesale water or an equitable interest in the right to own something.
Pope has served as a joint agency lawyer to this point but also advised that each member with a contract should have its own lawyer to work out negotiating points.
In her opinion, it is not difficult to set up a joint agency, from a legal standpoint. The issue is getting persons with a vested interest in their region of the county to come together on a project that promotes the common good of the entire county.
In Pope’s view that regional approach to water systems is working across the nation and now Fairfield has a chance to come on board.
By uniting under one authority it is hoped that more funding could be allocated to find a long term water source for the county which has had water restrictions in place since February due to severe drought restrictions.
Pope said that usually utilities continue to run source intake, transmission lines, distribution lines and pump stations.
County Council Chairman David Ferguson pointed out that no one yet has come up with a long term solution to Winnsboro water problems and mentioned the possibility of getting SCANA’s approval to draw water from Lake Monticello.
Winnsboro Mayor Robert Gaddy talked with SCANA and said it appears favorable that they would allow a million gallons per day to be drawn off of Lake Monticello and that “it is more prudent to do this water authority now and we can get that ball rolling later. There are limited options for a sustainable water supply. I don’t think we can afford to wait 36 months to make a choice and then 36 more months to implement it,” Gaddy said.
Lake Monticello water could then refill and supplement the county reservoir and allow it to recover from the recent drought.
Pope said there is little federal money available to help with the undertaking but there is a state revolving loan program with low interest rates. To be eligible the project must be on the priority list for DHEC, however.
“Until we get one entity as water provider, low interest rates and loans are not going to come to Fairfield,” Ferguson said.
Regionalism promotes a diverse base to draw from and bundling of credit helps, too.
Unless we can get specific low rates, we’d be hard pressed to pay for a system to run this county,” Ferguson said. “It would cost about $20 million for a water plant with any kind of distribution.”
Pope assured them that together these entities have a better chance to procure loans and funding than they do working alone.
Sam Bennett, a representative from Santee Cooper said the company could provide technical skills and vision to help with the project but that they would not finance the project.
“I honestly don’t think it would be all that different for people who are buying water from Winnsboro now,” Pope said. “It would make for economics of scale and give you the best cost for water that you can get.
The Army Corps of Engineers should be in Fairfield Sept. 25-27. Pope will continue to give guidance at meetings and said she had hoped the first charter committee meeting would be in Sept.
Fairfield County Councilwoman Carolyn Robinson, said, “I think it behooves the group to have vision and sit at the table and become a water authority. This is a new mindset we need to come to. In the long run, 24,000 people need water to exist. As an elected official, I feel that is important.”