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Elliot Pierce: 3,769 Miles From Northwest Georgia
Wisdom from afar for citizens in Georgia and "Walker residents still wait for badly needed water and sewer infrastructure improvements while paying the highest water and sewer rates in the region."
This post also appears on NorthwestGeorgiaNews.com and in the Walker County Messenger/Catoosa News upcoming print edition.
A large infrastructure project was launched in 2016 in the north Atlantic island nation of the Faroe Islands, located 450 miles off Iceland's coast. More than 700 feet beneath the surface of the Atlantic Ocean lie two road tunnels spanning more than 7 miles each. After less than four years of construction, the first tunnel opened in 2020. In 2018, work began on the second tunnel, which is scheduled for opening later this year. The project cost: $166 million. The road tunnels were built by a private company and will be operated by a private company. The only public aspect is ownership.
3,769 miles from the Faroe Islands, the Walker County government announced on February 22 that over $20 million in state grants had been awarded to the Walker County Water and Sewerage Authority(WCWSA). This grant money is part of a $45 million improvement plan announced last fall. The remaining funds in the plan are composed of $20 million in loans and a $5 million contribution from the county government approved last year. One of the largest projects in the plan is a sewer diversion project that will direct part of the sewer flow from Chattanooga to a treatment plant operated by the authority in Chickamauga. The project was prompted by rate increases implemented by Chattanooga in 2017. Another major project is the construction of a new water treatment plant which became necessary after Georgia EPD found E.coli in Walker groundwater sources in 2017. Two mobile filtration trucks have been rented by the water and sewer authority at a cost of more than $3 million since 2017. Additionally, the WCWSA plan includes 82,346 linear feet or 15.4 miles of water main extensions.
Still wondering how the Faroe Islands figure into all this? The Faroe Islands are about the same size as Walker County, have a slightly smaller population, and have similar demographics. In many ways, the infrastructure undertakings of Walker County and Faroe Islands are similar. Both are primarily below ground. Both are supported by multiple sources of funding. Both must adhere to a high standard of quality in order to ensure the health and safety of the public. It is, however, the difference between the two endeavors that is particularly striking and instructive. Private enterprise in the Faroe Islands built an infrastructure project of immense scale and complexity in just five years that now provides residents and visitors a safer, faster, and more economical way to travel every day. In contrast, the Walker County Water and Sewer Authority has yet to break ground on any major projects within the same timeframe despite the fact that the Walker County projects have a direct impact on matters of health, daily life, and prosperity for most Walker County residents and businesses. Delaying critical projects not only drive up their eventual cost but also increase the possibility of service impacts including those that might affect public heath.
We're still waiting for Walker County's public water and sewer authority to construct 7 miles of sewer since plans were developed for the sewer diversion project in 2018. The project may not be completed for two years or more. As well, Walker County has been in urgent need of a water treatment plant since 2017. According to the EPD permit application, the multi-year construction of the new water treatment plant should begin in March this year.
Note that none of the infrastructure projects outlined in the Water Authority plan are to be built under the Atlantic Ocean or carved through volcanic rock. And yet, Walker residents still wait for badly needed water and sewer infrastructure improvements while paying the highest water and sewer rates in the region. Moreover, according to a transcript of the deposition of the interim manager of WCWSA, customer rates will increase once construction begins and funds are withdrawn from the $20 million loans.
The Walker County Water and Sewerage Authority should and must be privatized. I have previously argued this point and will continue to do so. The public can retain ownership of assets and rights to water sources; however, the operation of a water utility is far more effective when in the hands of a private sector company with local oversight on rate setting. Read more here: https://www.northwestgeorgianews.com/catoosa_walker_news/elliot-pierce-unhappy-with-water-or-sewer-provider/article_53f80898-59ee-11ec-98fe-4f91306d646e.html
While there are some who may say the two projects aren't comparable (they're right, the Faroe projects were much more complex and daunting), imagine for a moment Walker County had plans to build a tunnel through Lookout Mountain for some reason. Do you think this could be done in less than four years by a government agency here?