Water woes diverted

Water rates have risen in Mason City but according to City Clerk Gail Zoerb, almost no one is complaining. The higher water bills are paying for a solution to what could have been a catastrophe in the making. Mason City residents were using far more water than the old well could keep up with. The rusty, hole-filled well was on the brink of collapse leaving the community completely high and dry. Mason City's water system, its well and its tower were older than dirt, claimed Mason City Utility/Maintance Manager Gary Zoerb, when asked when the original well and tower were built. Mason City’s water woes escalated when high demand put serious strain on their solitary well. Gary remarked that this small community of approximately 170 residents was consuming nearly 350,000 gallons per day. Seriously concerned if the well would continue to take the stress, the Mason City village board put a moratorium on water usage. Residents east of Main Street would be allowed to water their lawns on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Residents west of Main Street could water on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday with no one allowed to water on Sunday. The moratorium cut water usage but was only a temporary solution. In 2006, Mason City received a grant for a planning study to determine how to fix water their problem. The study determined there was definitely a need for a new well. The village board voted to apply for a water grant, which they did with the help of Miller & Associates. Mason City ultimately won the grant and in 2008 were awarded $943,00 from USDA Rural Development and the DED (Department of Economic Development) to construct a new municipal well, pump station and high pressure distribution loop, and to install a new water storage tank. Part of the grant ($328,800) came in the form of a 40-year bond which would need to be paid back. As part of the agreement accompanying the government grant money, the village was required to install meters on every property that would be using water. The USDA also established a recommended water usage rate residents would need pay for their water to ensure the bond was paid back on time. As the meters were installed, Gary said he got on the phone and called everyone who had property to ask if they wanted water, and this included several owners who lived outside of Mason City. He said he contacted property owners in Kearney, California, and an owner in Idaho who has four properties in Mason City. If the property owner wanted to have water, they would have to install a meter. No one would be allowed water without a meter. This was something Gary and Gail emphasized several times throughout Tuesday’s interview with the Chief. “Everyone who has water, has a meter,” she said. “If they don’t have a meter, they don’t have water.” The new water rate increased the household (and/or business) bill from a flat fee of $16 a month (plus 35 cents per head for any livestock over five head per property) to $20 a month base fee, plus one dollar per thousand gallons used. “It’s only right to pay for what you use,” said Gail. Even metered properties that have the water turned off still need to pay the base fee of $20. For example, the Zoerbs have four properties and pay for four meters plus usage even though not all of the properties are currently in use. Gary originally estimated that most residents would pay approximately $25 a month with the new water rate plans when he made the calls. He said that almost no balked at accepting to have their places metered, even those with properties with no renters in place. These fees have really helped, said Gail. “It takes everything we get to make the payments,” she added. With the grants in place, Mason City first installed the new well on Main Street to serve the entire community. When completed, they found they had enough grant money left over to replace the decades old well in the park. It was in the original plan to completely overhaul their 100-year-old water tower. “And its a good thing we did,” said Gary. “When they pulled the old well, the casings had holes the size of a dime. And gobs of rust the size of my fist. It would have only been a matter of a year or two before we would have had to replace the well, and then we wouldn’t have had the grant money. We really lucked out,” he said. The two wells now work in tandem to insure the village always is supplied with water no matter what the demand. The metering process has been a long one. Although many of the meters were installed early in the process, they only becoming fully functional in January 2011. Gary reads the meters with an electronic meter reader, and those whose sensors have stopped working, Gary reads manually. Replacements have been ordered. He also watches out for any high usage and gives the property owner a call to make them aware of the situation, and rereads the meter to make sure it registered correctly. “People have come to the realization that to keep the bill down, they will need to not have a leaky faucet,” he said, adding that to date, they haven’t had any outstanding water bills, nor any excessive usage. Mason City resident Joan Cox said it has been nice to not have to worry about working out a schedule for watering around assigned days, especially for those who are gone quite a bit. She says she hasn’t noticed that much of an increase, she has always been careful. What is even nicer this year, she said, is that with the nice rains, she has hardly had to water at all.