Starting next year, some Richmond Hill residents and all commercial customers can expect higher water bills.
In compliance with a new state Environmental Protection Division ruling centered on water conservation, rates are being raised as an incentive for residents to use less water. However, city officials and hired water consultant Barry Hall have devised a new rate structure that will not affect most residents. Hall said that the rate increase will only apply to 16 percent of the city’s population that he deems are using too much water.
"From zero to 10,000 gallons, the rate stays the same," Hall said. "In other words, nine out of 10 residents would never know a change is taking place because there will be no change in their rates."
City Manager Mike Melton said out of 3,700 residents, only about 500 would be affected by the new rates. Those 500 residential customers are currently using over 10,000 gallons per month.
According to the proposed tiered rate structure, usage of 10,000 to 25,000 gallons per months will cost 25 percent more while any water used above that will cost 200 percent more. Melton said only eight residents currently fall into the highest category.
"The more you use, the more expensive the water becomes," Hall said. "The citizens are in total control about whether this will impact them or not. What amazes me is that we have a few residents using 200,000 thousand gallons of water per month. We got the addresses and I had to go check them out for myself to believe it."
Commercial customers, on the other hand, will all be affected because commercial rates are proposed to go up 25 percent.
"The city has about 500 commercial accounts and they range anywhere from doctors, lawyers and real estate to convenience stores, gas stations and restaurants," Hall said. "There’s no way under the sun to try to develop a tiered rate structure that’s going to fit all that because usage patterns vary so differently."
"We hate to talk about going up on any rates in the city, but residents need to understand that this is being handed down to us," Mayor Richard Davis said.
Kevin Chambers with the EPD said conservation methods are being handed down throughout coastal Georgia in conjunction with the "Coastal Georgia Water and Wastewater Permitting Plan for Managing Saltwater Intrusion" which spells out the regulation of water use to stop saltwater intrusion into the upper Floridan aquifer.
Melton said city officials have proven that Richmond Hill and Bryan County are not affecting saltwater intrusion but, rather, are being penalized because of their close proximity to an area that does – Savannah.
"We spent a lot of money to prove that the city doesn’t have any pressure on this system," Melton said. "We’ve been working with a geologist for years, and he is in the process of publishing a paper on this issue."
But state Geologist Jim Kennedy said Bryan County does apply pressure to the system, by being in the cone of depression. He said the upcoming peer review may result in a change in the borders of the upper Floridan aquifer and the recently tapped lower Floridan aquifer. The lower is void of such restrictions. Kennedy said he does not believe a review on this matter will affect the restrictions.
Melton said the city will continue to work to avoid water restrictions, but he is skeptical of the impact it will have "because the EPD is difficult to deal with."
Here are additional proposed changes regarding water use that were discussed:
- Potentially allowing military and elderly residents to be exempt from a water deposit.
- Expanding the city’s water conservation education program. This includes radio, television and newspaper ads about conserving water in Richmond Hill and creating more water conservation programs in the Bryan County school system.
- The current three by five cards will most likely be replaced next year by a longer form in order to explain the new rates to customers.
This was the first reading for these new water measures, and council is slated to cast a vote on these matters as well as discuss further efforts during the Aug. 5 council meeting.