PRESS EDITORIAL: Safe drinking water is worth its rising cost

Even in the post-pandemic burst of inflation, a 45% price increase is breathtaking.

Yet that is what could happen to the price paid by residents and businesses for the tap water used by roughly 12,000 people in the City of Port Washington.

The astonishing price hike would be the result of the city complying with the order from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to make $15.3 million worth of improvements to its water plant.

Elected city officials are upset over the prospect of that water rate increase taking effect by 2024 and have no doubt heard from constituents irritated by the looming jump in the cost of living in the city.

“How are we going to face taxpayers and tell them there’s a 45% increase? That’s horrible,” Mayor Ted Neitzke said. “We can’t price out the people who have been living here for years.”

That’s a fair analysis, but there are some things city officials can tell taxpayers that should at least dampen the sticker-price shock.

The first is that there is no way to avoid the $15.3 million water plant upgrade. The plant has been out of compliance with state regulations for its clearwell water storage facility (the critical final stage of the pathogen removal process) and backup power system for some time. The DNR has given the city some leeway on these requirements for several years by grandfathering the plant, but that concession is now ended.

The DNR is a frequent target of criticism for zealous regulating, but the agency should not be faulted for enforcing rules to ensure that municipal water supplies meet state and federal safety standards. Based on the number of Wisconsinites protected by those rules, it could be said that monitoring drinking water purity is the DNR’s most important work.

The deficiencies in the Port Washington water plant cited by the DNR do not mean the city’s water is anything less than perfectly safe to drink. Rigorously tested, it meets all federal standards for drinking water safety. The point of bringing the water utility up to state standards is to keep it that way.

Port Washington water rates have been consistently above the state average for municipalites, but in return residents have been able to take for granted that water flows from their faucets free of health risks. Millions of Americans don’t have that peace of mind.

There are places in the U.S. where tap water is downright poisonous, forcing people to boil water to make it safe to drink or live on bottled water. Even in Wisconsin, drinking-water quality is problematic in a number of communities, particularly those depending on wells. Dangerous radium levels in Waukesha’s well water, for example, account for that municipality’s desperate drive to be allowed to pump water from Lake Michigan through 36 miles of piping.

The Port Washington filtration plant gets its water from the lake at its doorstep that is part of the world’s largest reserve of freshwater (through only a few hundred feet of pipe from its offshore intake), but lake water comes with its own purity challenges, mainly from disease-causing bacteria that require effective, complex and costly water treatment.

Anyone who doubts that imperative should Google “cryptosporidium.” That will lead to the story of the largest waterborne disease outbreak in U.S. history, which involved water drawn from the lake only 25 miles from Port Washington.

In 1993, more than half a million Milwaukee residents were sickened by the crytosporidium parasite and 69 of them died. For 10 days tap water had to be boiled before it could be safely used. The disaster, which resulted in $96 million in health care costs and productivity losses, was caused by the failure to effectively treat a parasite that was resistant to chlorine.

The Port Washington water plant and others treating lake water are tasked with intercepting numerous pathogens that can threaten human health. Rigorous regulation and costly facility maintenance go with that.

Port officials should, of course, do everything they can to mitigate the impact of the mandated investment in water plant improvements. This could include asking the DNR to approve a temporary reduction in the required 5% return on water plant investment and, in the very best case, leveraging federal infrastructure funding should it be available.

Water ratepayers can also take some comfort from the fact that the water bills they receive are for combined water and sewer service, and only about half of the charges will be affected by the water cost increase. So quarterly water-bill payments will rise by about 22% at most.

That is still a lot of inflation to swallow, but the assurance of being able to swallow pure, safe water ought to be worth it.


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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
(262) 284-3494


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