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This letter to the editor was submitted to LebTown. Read our submission policy here.

If you are a City of Lebanon Authority (CoLA) customer – a designation that applies to about 70,000 Lebanon County residents, including households, businesses, and municipalities – you may have noticed that your water rates increased slightly on April 1.

While any price hike is unwanted, the unfortunate reality is that the increase is unavoidable. The good news, however, is the water rate increase is far less than the 10 percent that has been repeatedly reported over the past several months.

That erroneous figure came from a November Cornwall Borough Council meeting and has prompted the Borough, a CoLA customer since 1990, to explore securing its own water source for its residents. Cornwall previously had their own water supply sources before connecting to CoLA.

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The actual increase CoLA customers in Cornwall Borough, Lebanon City, and 10 other municipalities across Lebanon County will pay for the water they use this year is just three percent. It’s an 11-cent jump from $3.73 per 1000 gallons to $3.84 per 1000 gallons. The average household of four uses roughly 12,000 gallons of water per quarter, so that’s a daily increase of a penny and a half. Conscientious consumers who conserve water will spend even less.

There are many reasons for the rate increase. But before exploring those, it is important to understand that the City of Lebanon Authority is not in business to make a profit. It is a municipal authority operated by your neighbors and governed by an experienced board of trustees. CoLA’s primary mission is to provide safe drinking water and reliable sewer service to its residential, commercial, industrial, and municipal customers at the lowest possible price.

But those prices are often out of CoLA’s control. Like the products on grocery store shelves, the cost of water treatment chemicals and watermain materials has significantly increased in the past two years. Just one example is the price of chlorine, an essential additive used to kill harmful bacteria. Since 2021 its price per pound has more than tripled.

And, of course, there is the never-ending task of maintaining and upgrading CoLA’s aging infrastructure. Many of its watermains and service lines are approaching 75 to 100-years in age. Those include almost 100 miles of watermains made of cast iron that are scheduled to be replaced in the coming years at an estimated cost of between $2 million and $3 million per mile!

CoLA has also committed to replacing thousands of lead and iron service lines which connect directly to residential homes and businesses, at a cost of $5,000 per line.

With these kinds of financial pressures, the water rate increase could easily have been much higher, according to the Authority’s executive director, Jon Beers.

“Through careful planning, we are fortunate to keep our water rate increases to about 3% this year despite all the cost increases and supply chain issues we have endured since the Covid pandemic started,” he said.

But there are more challenges on the horizon, explained Beers. CoLA is subject to governmental regulations established by state and federal environmental protection agencies which often result in price increases.

“We are facing increased requirements from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to address issues such as pipe replacements and potential water supply limitations. As we have seen on the West Coast, particularly in California, water is quickly becoming a tightly regulated and sought after natural resource,” Beers said.

That’s why CoLA does not fault Cornwall’s leaders for considering obtaining an independent water source for the Borough. Options include purchasing the vast open iron pit mine in Cornwall last operated by Bethlehem Steel. It is the County’s largest body of water and is owned by the Elizabethtown Area Water Authority.

Water supply is high on CoLA’s priority list as well. Currently, CoLA is working on renewing its water allocation permit from the DEP, which stipulates how many gallons per day can be drawn from CoLA’s two water sources – Siegrist Dam in Schuylkill County and the Swatara Creek intake in Jonestown. Previously, CoLA had a 50-year permit issued in 1969 allowing for 11 million gallons per day to be withdrawn. The DEP is allowing CoLA to operate under the old conditions until a new agreement is reached. Hopefully by the end of the year.

The Siegrist Dam, 600 feet across and 125 feet high. Once publicly traversable, the dam has since been fenced off for safety reasons. (Joshua Groh)

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However, the restrictions the DEP wants to place on CoLA would greatly reduce annual water supplies to its existing customers and limit future growth, especially in a dry year. If the DEP is successful, CoLA will be forced to begin a very expensive and time-consuming process of looking for additional water sources, Beers predicted.

“We are very fortunate in Lebanon County to have several water supplies and abundant rainfall. Our ancestors did some great planning to find and develop the water sources we enjoy. In the late-1800s they identified an area in Schuylkill County as a possible source of water for Lebanon County. Today the Siegrist Dam is in a protected mountainous, forested area of the PA State Game Lands, and provides wonderful, clean water. But water safety and security for the future is essential, and it won’t come without an investment,” said Beers.

PA American was approved by the PA Utility Commission to raise their water and sewer rates for 2023. Lebanon’s rates are about 40% of PA American’s water rates, and 25% of PA American’s sewer rates. The western half of Lebanon County, including the Annville and Palmyra areas, are served with PA American’s water.

If you want to learn more about the water and sewer history in Lebanon, CoLA wrote an historical review of how the water sources for their customers was developed, and how sewage treatment systems have been nationally recognized. Copies of “The City of Lebanon Authority: History of Lebanon, PA’s Water and Sewer System” are available at the Historical Society, Cornwall Iron Furnace, or at the Authority’s office on Ridgeview Road.

Cover of the book completed in celebration of the 150th anniversary of Lebanon’s public water supply.


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