A new state law, sponsored by Sen. Bill White, R-Joplin, and signed by the governor only a few weeks ago, is helping a local utility speed the replacement of older water and sewer infrastructure in Joplin.
On Monday, White met with Missouri American Water Co. manager Matt Barnhart and other workers on Joplin Avenue between 34th and 36th streets where the company is replacing decades-old 2-inch water mains with much larger 8-inch mains.
Barnhart said this was the first project the company had financed using the changes enacted in White’s Water and Sewer Infrastructure Replacement Act, which went into effect Aug. 28.
Barnhart said the new law allows the company to finance water and sewer main replacement and relocation projects. He said customers will see a small surcharge, based on their water usage, on their bill.
“We’re able to do projects and control the impact the cost has on the customer by doing them annually,” Barnhart said. “We’re able to avoid those 10% or 15% rate hikes every three or five years. This allows us to have small surcharges to pay for just these projects we need, so it allows us to save money by having a constant workload and keep those same people working so they become even more efficient at what they do.”
White’s bill, Senate Bill 44, allows water and sewer companies to request rate changes more often. Under the previous law, utilities went to the Public Service Commission for a rate hike on a three-year cycle.
“This deals with things that come up between rate cases that you don’t want to put off,” White said. “A classic example is you’re repairing a leak in a water main and you discover that a whole segment of line is corroded and needs to be replaced. You repair the leak, but then it’s so much more efficient to go in and replace the whole thing than to have to come back in two years after you’ve done a rate case with the PSC.
“It never gets cheaper to do construction the longer you put it out.”
White said the law allows the PSC to review the surcharge before it appears on a bill, then the projects and surcharges approved previously are audited again when the company comes to the PSC for one of its regular rate changes.
The bill was approved by the Legislature in the final days of the 2021 session.
White said the bill was based on a similar program that’s been in place in St. Louis since 2003.
Barnhart said the measure expanded that for critical investment in all of Missouri American Water’s operations throughout the state.
“The passing of this legislation, which is critical to our ability to continue to provide reliable water and wastewater service to our customers, was due to Sen. White’s leadership and expertise,” said Debbie Dewey, president of Missouri American Water. “Planned replacement of aging water system pipes is safer and more cost efficient than waiting for the pipes to fail, which can lead to service interruptions, boil advisories and personal property damage.”
Barnhart said the water lines being replaced on Joplin Avenue are some of the smallest and oldest in the city’s water system, and are in dire need of replacement.
He said the project will replace 4,400 feet of 2-inch water line, installed in the 1950s on Joplin Avenue and an adjacent street, with new 8-inch lines that should last more than a century.
The project is costing Missouri American about $750,000, and Barnhart said the company hopes to finish replacing the old 2-inch lines in the next five to seven years. Then it has to go to work replacing the 4-inch lines.
“We’ll average $4 million to $5 million in infrastructure improvements a year,” Barnhart said. “That’s a substantial amount, and we’ve done that for about the last four years at least.”
Barnhart said the new lines are wrapped in plastic and protected by rock underground.
The older lines are more susceptible to damage than the newer lines.