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Winning the Water War

Public Service

Rome is the Rome we all know today because of the two rivers that come together at the base of Myrtle Hill. Native Americans found the abundant water and fertile river valley corridor a special place to call home. Thanks to the efforts of many dedicated public servants and a legal team that worked tirelessly for close to four years, it will become a cleaner, safer supply and hopefully stay that way for the foreseeable future.

Attorneys for the city reached settlements this summer with more than 30 defendants in a suit that was originally filed in 2019 to hold manufacturers of so-called “forever chemicals,” polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), responsible for the cost of building a new raw water treatment plant in Rome, operating and maintaining that plant for years in the future, as well as dealing with the initial treatments of chemicals at the upstream sources of the pollution that has plagued Rome for decades.

The PFAS chemicals have been used to create stain-resistant carpeting manufactured at plants across the upper Coosa Valley. Those manufacturers and Dalton Utilities were the subject of the case filed in November 2019. The settlements reached this summer mean that Rome can finish designing, constructing, and installing a closed circuit reverse osmosis water treatment facility that will treat whatever is coming through the raw waters of the Oostanaula and Etowah Rivers. That figure is expected to be well north of $100 million.

Attorney Andy Davis, a partner with Brinson, Askew and Berry attorneys in Rome, said the facility will provide “great water for the city of Rome.” Given the capabilities of the reverse osmosis system, the water may end up being better than the water those first Native Americans found hundreds of years ago.

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Attorney Jeff Friedman with the Friedman, Dazzio and Zulanas firm in Birmingham explains that Rome is the focal point for drainage of the Upper Coosa Valley basin and has been impacted far more than most communities nationwide. The settlements are “going to benefit the citizens here, and the natural resources will eventually recover, we believe, because of some of the agreements that we’ve been able to reach.”

Rome has chosen acreage along Riverside Parkway, between the Department of Family and Children Services facility and the Rome Community Center, to build the new reverse osmosis treatment plant. Archer Western has been chosen as the construction manager at the risk of the new water treatment plant.

“The name (reverse osmosis) may have more fanfare than what is actually taking place,” said Rome Water and Sewer Division Director Mike Hackett. “It’s filtering filtered water to the point where you’re almost removing everything.” He said the process of removing particulates from the water is so complete that minerals have to be added to the back end of the process. Conventional filtration has been done for decades via a gravity-based system. Reverse osmosis involves forcing raw water through a membrane with almost microscopic pores at extremely high pressure.

Operating a reverse osmosis system will be significantly higher than current costs. “Definitely higher power costs,” said Hackett. “Probably higher personnel and maintenance costs, but most of it will probably be related to power.” The settlement projects enough money to cover the increased costs associated with reverse osmosis. Still, the revenue the settlement produces will not fund maintenance and operation in perpetuity.

One of the first major impacts of the settlement agreements is that current Rome water customers received a rollback of water rates added on bills beginning in March of 2022.

City commissioners voted to impose a 9% annual increase out of necessity if the city was unsuccessful in the litigation against the chemical manufacturers. The rate would go up 9% each year into 2025, followed by 3% annual increases for another six years. If you were paying $50 a month for water, that would have gone up to $54.50 last year, then increased to $59.40 this year, up to $64.74 next year,
and so on.

The rollback of water rates takes the charges back to the same level imposed in December 2018. City Manager Sammy Rich has estimated that the rollback will save the average water customer between $10 and $15 a month.

How long the rollback and savings can continue is anyone’s guess because aside from simply rolling back rates, costs associated with treating raw water have gone up significantly over the last five years. The bottom line for city officials is that the settlement should result in cleaner water and allow Rome to build a state-of-the-art water treatment plant that should last for many decades into the future. It’s a big win-win for the community.