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City sees profit in pumping more water

City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz told the mayor’s budget task force Tuesday that he sees "an entrepreneurial opportunity" for Evanston in providing water service to additional nearby communities.

He said city officials have visited several nearby towns and water districts within the past month to discuss possible expansion.

City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz told the mayor’s budget task force Tuesday that he sees "an entrepreneurial opportunity" for Evanston in providing water service to additional nearby communities.

He said city officials have visited several nearby towns and water districts within the past month to discuss possible expansion.

Assistant City Manager Marty Lyons said the talks were aimed at gauging "whether somebody wants to buy water from us for a buck or a buck and a half, rather than paying $2 for water from Chicago."

Dave Stonebeck, who heads the city’s water operation, said the city’s water plant is rated for a 108 million gallon per day capacity, but now only actually pumps an average of 40 million gallons.

With rising water costs in recent years, Stonebeck says, users all over the country have been installing new equipment to reduce their water consumption, and Evanston has seen a 16 percent decrease in usage in just the past decade.

Evanston already sells water to Skokie and to four towns served by the Northwest Water Commission.

It would be least costly to add service to towns bordering Skokie, Stonebeck said, because the need for additional supply lines would be relatively small.

Three towns that border Skokie now use a total of about 11 million gallons of water per day, he said.

Bobkiewicz says the water supply contracts that some nearby communities have expire within a couple of years, but others have nearly a decade or more to run.

So, he said, he sees "short, medium and long range" opportunities for Evanston to expand its service area.

Stonebeck said that the water plant could serve some additional customers without adding personnel and that the added chemicals to treat the additional water and electricy to run the pumps are a relatively small part of the total plant costs, so there should be opportunities for substantial incremental profit to the city if the water is priced properly.

He said that for a larger expansion project the plant’s capacity could be doubled with new, more efficient technology. That would mean more equipment to maintain and require some additional maintenance staff. "But you wouldn’t have to double the staff to double the capacity," he added.

The expansion could potentially mean several million dollars annually of additional revenue to the city, but Bobkiewicz cautioned that in the past the city has tended to underfund the water operation, taking money from the water fund to close gaps in the general fund budget.

Lyons noted that the city has 100-year-old water mains that need to be replaced. And Stonebeck said that to replace just one percent of the city’s water infrastructure each year costs about $3 million.

An additional constraint on expansion is that under an interstate compact, there are limits on how much water any community can draw from Lake Michigan and stiff resistance from some states to granting any increase in existing limits.

Bobkiewitz said he plans to update the City Council in April on how talks with the other communities are progressing.

Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl campaigned for election last year on a theme of renegotiating existing water contracts to generate more revenue. That idea appears to have proven impractical, but may have contributed to the effort now to find new customers for the city’s water utility.

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