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Replacing the nearly century-old water lines to Lookout Mountain this spring proved to be a steep challenge for Chattanooga's largest water utility.

Contractors for Tennessee American Water used mules to haul equipment through the Chickamauga-Chattanooga National Military Park. They brought in a 240-ton truck crane to lift pipes and strung zip lines for workers laying the water mains up the 1,500-foot ascent along the Incline Railway.

"This was not your garden-variety pipeline construction project," Tennessee American Water General Manager John Watson said.

The $1.6 million project showcased new technologies and many of the manual techniques used to install the original pipes up Lookout and other area mountains.

The work was only a small portion of more than $100 million in water system upgrades under way across Tennessee this year for new filter plants, water lines and treatment equipment among nearly 200 water utilities that serve Tennessee. But it's still just a drop in the bucket compared with the investment needed to meet projected population growth and stricter federal water regulations, according to an analysis of America's infrastructure needs by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

To meet the region's future water needs, some political leaders want to coordinate better -- or even combine -- the patchwork of water utilities serving Hamilton County.

In their latest study, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave a "D-" grade to the country's drinking water systems, noting that at least $11 billion is needed to replace aging facilities.

Water systems in Tennessee and Georgia earned better grades of "C."

But water services remain fragmented and sometimes are inadequate in parts of the state, according to those involved in the engineers' biannual assessment.

"In Tennessee, we have a lot of water resources -- rivers, lakes, streams and abundant rainfall to give us a pretty good supply of water," said Monica Sartain, an environmental engineer for Barge Waggoner Sumner & Cannon Inc. in Nashville. She serves as the Tennessee infrastructure committee chairman for the American Society of Civil Engineers.

"However, there are still a few areas within Tennessee that don't have adequate supplies, and that becomes very obvious during droughts," she said.

GRADING THE WATER

The American Society of Civil Engineers gave Tennessee a "C" grade for its water and wastewater infrastructure and Georgia a "C+" for drinking. Both grades were better than the "D-" given to such infrastructure nationwide.

The Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations estimates the state had $28.3 billion of infrastructure needs over five years for all types of water, roads and bridges.

"The problem for Tennessee, like most states, is that our infrastructure is aging and we don't haven't enough money for maintenance and growth," Ms. Sartain said.

Combining water utilities

In Hamilton County, Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield and county Mayor Claude Ramsey suggest the county's 10 water providers need to do more to coordinate, or possibly even combine, their operations to meet tighter federal drinking water standards and growing development.

Mr. Littlefield has urged the combination of water and sewer authorities across the region.

"If we are to achieve all that we might hope for during the decade ahead, the Chattanooga area will need an industrial-grade water and sewer utility much like the Electric Power Board," he said.

Hamilton County leaders are not as anxious for a single water and sewer authority. But Mr. Ramsey and County Commission Chairman Fred Skillern said they want to work to coordinate and perhaps combine water districts where it makes sense, and to encourage better extension of sewers across the county.

"It may make sense to combine some of them to give more efficiency and better rates," Mr. Ramsey said. "But the devil is always in the details. It's something I hope we can look at in the future."

Mr. Skillern said Soddy-Daisy Falling Water Utility District already handles billing and most services for its smaller neighbors, the Mowbray and Sale Creek utility districts.

"We're making progress," he said. "We're coming to put them together in a way."

Walden's Ridge Utility District signed an agreement in 2003 to buy all of its water from Tennessee American Water after its wells proved insufficient to meet its volume and quality standards.

"We wanted to be prepared for the growth up here," said Ron West, general manager.

When water supplies and quality were lacking in Suck Creek, Tennessee American also took over that district nearly a decade ago.

Savannah Valley Utility District has boosted its interconnections with Eastside and is spending $3 million this year to upgrade water filtration from its wells and more than double the capacity of its current equipment.

"We already are interconnected and cooperate with Eastside (Utility District) in case there is an emergency, and we believe we have an adequate water supply for the next 10 to 20 years," said Joe Barrows, manager for Savannah Valley in Georgetown.

Mr. Barrows and other water utility managers question the need for consolidation.

"We're kind of a long county from one end to another, and when you start spreading out I'm not sure what you would really gain, because you don't want to operate that out of one central office," said Gene Huffine, manager of the Hixson Utility District, one of the largest of the state's publicly owned utility districts.

General Manager Don Stafford said Eastside Utility District is spending about $5 million this year to boost its capacity to serve Volkswagen and growth areas of Ooltewah and East Brainerd. The utility took over a filter plant from the former Volunteer Army Ammunition Plant and recently expanded its capacity from 24 million gallons a day to 36 million. On a typical day, Eastside now sells about 10 million gallons a day.

The additional capacity for Eastside, which derives its supply from Lake Chickamauga, gives Chattanooga another major water source other than Tennessee American Water, which pumps its water from the Tennessee River in the Nickajack Reservoir near downtown.

Mr. Littlefield said he wants Eastside and Tennessee American better connected, along with other water providers in the region.

But a complete merger of water systems also could create problems in adjusting rates across districts. A rate comparison of the 10 water utilities in Hamilton County by the Memphis engineering firm of Allen & Hoshall found water in rural Sale Creek costs more than four times as much as water in Hixson.

"I don't see how our customers in Hixson would benefit by merging with more costly water systems," Mr. Huffine said.

Investing in liquid assets

Regardless of any consolidation or ownership changes, most water systems plan on investing more to upgrade water treatment and to replace aging pipes.

Across Tennessee, industry officials insist adequate investments are being made and that water systems are coordinating connections to ensure reliability and quality.

"In general, I think water utility districts and water providers across the state do a very good job meeting the current rules," said Bob Freudenthal, executive director for the Tennessee Association of Utility Districts. "Utility districts and water providers need to work in a coordinated fashion, and they really already do."

But Mr. Freudenthal said new, stricter standards on contaminants in water supplies expected from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency could force even more costly control systems for some utilities.

Tennessee American Water plans to spend $12 million on system upgrades and maintenance this year as part of a $121 million, 15-year capital improvement program, Mr. Watson said.

"Water lines are underground and usually out of sight and out of mind," he said. "The only time most people think about their water supply is when they don't have it. But we're committed to investing in our system every year to make sure we continue to provide quality water."

Mr. Littlefield proposed the idea of a city takeover of the privately held water utility four years ago. But Mr. Watson said such a takeover could threaten the ongoing investment and improvements Tennessee American Water has made. He also vowed that American Water Works, the parent company of the utility, would fight any government takeover attempt.

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