Mayor: Winnsboro Determined to Form County Water Authority

The Mayor of Winnsboro had some strong words at the close of Monday night’s meeting of key county and neighboring players, who gathered at the Winnsboro Woman’s Club to consider the first steps toward forming a county-wide water authority, words that spelled out the hard facts regarding the future of water supply in Fairfield County.

“The Town of Winnsboro is committed to forming this water authority. I can tell you that right now,” Winnsboro Mayor Roger Gaddy said. “If nobody else comes on board, what’s going to happen? Well, I don’t want to be ugly, but Mid-County gets their water from us on a contract basis every two or three years. The Town of Ridgeway does, too. If we don’t have the cooperation from everybody and don’t have the funding to do whatever needs to be done, to guarantee water for everybody, there’s a real possibility that, at some time in the future whenever you go to renew your contract, Winnsboro says ‘I’m sorry, we just don’t have the water capacity, you’re going to have to get it someplace else.’

“That’s not being used as a threat,” Gaddy said. “That’s just the reality. We’ve done about all we can do by ourselves. We really need the authority to be formed.”

Gaddy noted that changes and upgrades to the Town of Winnsboro’s aging water treatment plant have been funded by the Town of Winnsboro, which, because the water is sold on contract and the rates are locked into those contracts, cannot pass the costs on to those to whom the water is sold.

“We’ve got to have a cooperative agency,” Gaddy said, “where we’re working toward the same goal, where we work on solutions together, instead of Ridgeway saying, ‘Gee, you know we’ve got this line that goes down to the gold mine and we can’t get it to pass the tests, so God knows we’re putting 20,000 gallons of water on the ground every week to purge the lines. Winnsboro, do you think you can switch from chlorine to chloramine?’ Sure, we’ll help you out on that. Guess what: That cost us $50,000, if not more. That cost can’t be passed on to Ridgeway because we’ve got a contract that says what we’ll sell them water for. So who picks up the $50,000 tab and who eats it?”

Representatives from the Town of Ridgeway, Fairfield County Council, the Town of Winnsboro, the Town of Blythewood, Mid-County Water, the Jenkinsville Water Company and Mitford Water heard from representatives from Santee Cooper on what a water authority might look like and how it could help Fairfield County move forward. Santee Cooper has helped form two similar entities, in Lake Moultrie and Anderson County, and is exploring the possibility of another such entity in Hampton County, according to Margaret Pope, an attorney for the Pope Zeigler law firm, which represents the power company.

Water authorities can be formed with a tremendous amount of flexibility built into their bylaws, Pope said, allowing the members (individual water distributors) to maintain much of their own autonomy while sharing some or all of the costs of system upgrades. The borrowing power of a single authority, she said, would also be much greater than that of any individual member on its own, which would allow for easier compliance with federally mandated upgrades, as well as expansion of the current water system. Expansion of the system, Pope said, leads to lower water rates for customers, as does the pooling of customers under the authority.

“It is so important if you want your area to grow,” Pope said.

But a central water authority is only one of the challenges facing customers of the Winnsboro water system. A severe drought and an overextension of water sales into neighboring Blythewood have put Winnsboro in the position of having to purchase water from the City of Columbia just to relieve some of that stress. While SCE&G has agreed to allow Winnsboro to draw 1 million gallons a day out of Lake Monticello, the infrastructure necessary to do so won’t be in place for at least a year. A study by the Army Corps of Engineers to assess other potential sources, such as the Broad River or Lake Wateree, is also two years away from completion.

Nevertheless, a water authority is paramount, Gaddy said, particularly when it comes to funding the kind of infrastructure necessary to pull in the Lake Monticello water.

“Now is the time we all need to be sitting at the table,” Gaddy said. “We all need to know what the situation is, what challenges we have, what are we going to have to do to move forward, what are we going to have to do to be sure that we can guarantee that we’re able to supply the water that we have at the present time and what are we going to do make sure we can supply the future. Not so that everything stays status quo, but so that our communities can grow, and that if they put in a 600-acre industrial recruitment site, they can get water to it. There’s been very little communication. One of the things this authority does is it puts everybody around the table together.”

Gaddy asked all of the potential joining entities to weigh their options and make contact with Town Manager Don Wood within the next two weeks. Once it is determined who will be on board, the group will meet again to being hashing out the details of a cooperative.