Portage County aims to avoid water problems

With a 3.5 percent yearly population increase, Portage County is giving a “Herculean effort” to keep its water supply in the clear, said Harold Huff, director of Portage County Water Resources.

Portage County Commissioner Chuck Keiper said, before an agreement made last year with Cleveland for 5 million gallons of drinking water a day, the county only had enough resources to provide its residents with water for another four to five years. The agreement fully went into effect in August of this year.

“We now believe we can serve the needs of Portage County for 100 years until we need to find additional sources,” Keiper said.

The agreement was originally made to help supply Aurora and Streetsboro with water, but the water, which will travel through pipes from Lake Erie to Aurora, will help with the rest of Portage County’s future needs as well. Keiper said the agreement also saves Portage County money because it doesn’t have to create another water plant.

“Both federal and Ohio (Environmental Protection Agencies) have significant numbers of regulations to comply with,” he said. “We take advantage of the fact Cleveland has a plant that can already meet those regulations without us spending another dime (for water).”

However, in addition to paying for the water it receives from Cleveland, Huff said Portage County will pay $100,000 a year into the city’s economic development fund.

Huff explained that money for water can only go into funding the water supply, and Cleveland needed money for economic development.

“What’s good for Portage County is good for Cleveland – what’s good for Cleveland is good for Portage County,” he said. “If Cleveland collapses tomorrow, we’ve got problems over here.”

The $100,000 for the fund is included in individual customer’s water rates and future rate increases. Beginning this past August, the rate increase is at 3.5 percent per year for the next two years.

Huff said this is a low rate of increase. Aurora had an 11 percent rate increase in January, but the agreement with Cleveland brought the rate down to 3.5 percent, a drop of 7.5 percent.

The increase also includes the rising costs of chemicals, employee salaries and supplying an increasing customer base with water.

Cleveland Water Commissioner Chris Nielson said the city was happy to enter the agreement with Portage County, and the 5 million gallons a day won’t pose any threat to Cleveland’s water supply.

“It’s a national trend that people are using less water, so we’re not worried about our ability to serve water to Portage County or surrounding areas,” Nielson said.

Huff agreed.

“Are we running out of supply? The lake’s not going down,” he said. “We’ve hit a home run.”

However, the agreement with Cleveland isn’t the only effort the county has taken when planning for its future water needs. It also has an agreement with Ravenna and Mantua, which have their own separate water supplies. The Ravenna agreement is for a maximum of 2.5 million gallons per day and the Mantua agreement is for a maximum of 400,000.

Huff said the county actually gets about 600,000 gallons per day from Ravenna, but could use up to 2.5 million if needed.

The county doesn’t use any of the 400,000 gallons from its agreement with Mantua. But Huff said the agreement is in place in case the county builds a customer base in that area.

He said the county is also working on an agreement for 1.5 million gallons per day of raw, untreated water from Mantua. The water would be treated in Portage County water plants and sent out for customer use.

There are no extra costs in the agreements with Ravenna and Mantua. Huff said the county only pays for the water it uses.

When supplying the area with water, Huff said he likes to take the regional approach. He said Cleveland has the means to supply the water, and Portage County has the means for distributing the water, engineering and offering customer service.

“Let them remain their own entity. Let us remain our own entity,” he said. “But let’s work together for the common good.”

Contact public affairs reporters Kristen Russo at [email protected] and Morgan Day at [email protected]