Recently, two of the county’s largest water service providers have been in talks to further their business relationship, which could result in centralized sewer service for the first time in areas south of Mobile and north of Fowl River.
The Mobile Area Water and Sewer System (MAWSS) already shares around 3,000 customers with the Mobile County Water, Sewer and Fire Protection Authority (MCWS), but that wasn’t always the case.
The two companies were involved in legal battles over shared territory for more than a decade, and the most recent litigation ended less than four years ago.
Those legal problems started when the MCWS accused MAWSS of “parlaying its centralized sewer services into a formidable competitive advantage” by instituting an “all-or-nothing” program that required MAWSS sewer customers to also purchase the company’s water services – even in areas where the Water Authority was already established.
Today, MCWS actually assesses and collects sewage fees for MAWSS, and is hoping to expand that same service to more of its customers.
The companies have been in talks about the specifics of more shared customers for almost five years, but currently, a proposed expansion of sewer services from Three Notch Road to Dawes Road is coming closer to fruition.
“There have been some preliminary discussions about treating some of their wastewater, but nothing has been finalized,” MAWSS spokeswoman Barbara Shaw said. “We are more than happy to work with them.”
A wastewater treatment agreement between the two utilities, if approved, would be similar to an agreement MCWS has already made with the Utilities Board of Bayou la Batre.
MCWS is currently using a $250 million Coastal Impact Assistance Program (CIAP) grant to add sewer lines down State Highway 188 in the Coden area. That program will connect several hundred homes to sewer lines running to the new wastewater treatment plant in Bayou la Batre, which will process the sewage from MCWS customers.
Joe Summersgill has been the executive director of the MCWS since 2010 and spent 17 years working with MAWSS prior to that.
He said once the MCWS wraps up the CIAP program, it hopes to reach a similar agreement with MAWSS – though it’s not exactly clear how and when such a plan would be funded.
“We’re always working to get grants, but if we couldn’t, we’d probably do a bond issue in 2017 because we’ll be tied up with the CIAP grant through 2016,” Summersgill said. “It would really help with economic growth in the area too. They’ve never had sewer down here, and it has kept businesses from developing south of Highway 90.”
He also said the project could have a positive impact the environment by providing customers an option to septic tanks. Because of the lack of sewer service, several residents in the area still use septic tanks that continue to leak into the ground water and the bay.
“My goal is to get everybody off septic,” Summersgill said. “It’s not helping because of the amount of phosphorous and nitrogen it puts into the water. It’s killing the oyster reefs.”
The MCWS is also hoping to work with MAWSS on a water agreement, which could prevent the company from having to add more wells in the future. According to Summersgill, MAWSS has about 40 million gallons of water for sale, and purchasing that water would be much cheaper than building a new well that, along with a storage tank, could cost more than $3 million.
Summersgill said MAWSS is in the process of reviewing the contract MCWS used for its wastewater treatment agreement with Bayou la Batre, and should submit a response soon.
During an Aug. 21 meeting, members of MCWS said they were very happy with the way the discussions were moving – calling them “positive.”
“It’s a win-win for everybody. We get to better serve our customers and MAWSS gets new customers,” Summersgill said. “It’s not good when two water companies are feuding. Luckily, instead of being at odds, we were able to move on and work with them.”