So Long, Cheap Water; Hello, Water

The Town of Winnsboro’s long, arid nightmare, apparently, is over. After a year of living with the fear that FEMA tankers and National Guard airlifts may, at any minute, be their only source of potable water, Town Council lifted mandatory water restrictions Tuesday night. A rainy winter and the relief of Winnsboro’s Blythewood responsibilities by the City of Columbia have at last allowed the stressed-out reservoir to heal itself, and customers can go back to filling swimming pools, watering lawns and brushing teeth with the spigot on.

The crisis has been averted. For now.

But unless some serious plans start taking shape – the kind of plans that did not, evidently, precede this most recent flirtation with official Ghost Town status – we’re only as good as our next dry spell.

Fortunately for customers of Winnsboro water, those plans are in motion. Slow motion, but motion nonetheless. And plans like these – to form a joint water authority, thereby pooling the collective borrowing power of all the major water players in the area (minus the Jenkinsville Water Company) – should be taken slowly and deliberately. One step at a time.

Last week, those prospective members (Mid-County Water, Fairfield County and the towns of Winnsboro, Blythewood and Ridgeway) took another step down that path, hearing mainly from other agencies that have made similar transformations. During last week’s meeting between the steering committee for the proposed Fairfield Joint Water Supply Authority and agencies from the Upstate and the Lowcountry, two pertinent points stood out. One, that there were lumps to take during the formation process, but once those contusions healed, it was worth all the effort. And two, many water customers in many small towns in South Carolina have been living in a fool’s paradise when it comes to their water rates.

Rates in those towns, one representative of a Lowcountry water agency said last week, have long been linked to political power. “I give you cheap water,” became a campaign slogan, and a poor economic model. It may have kept mayors in office for a generation, but it also created water systems that drained the general fund, giving rise to higher taxes or higher business license fees or, when those wells ran dry, turning the town into a speed trap to boost revenues through increased fines. Even then, systems could not keep up with tighter DHEC regulations.

There’s no doubt about it, if Winnsboro water customers are going to continue to have a reliable source of water – and have future economic development infrastructure in place – rates are going up. While the recently re-elected Mayor of Winnsboro has said in the past, ‘Slightly more expensive water is better than no water at all,’ how ‘slightly’ remains to be seen.

As one noted CPA said during last week’s meeting: “The days of the $12 water bill are over.”