A bridge over troubled waters?

By Bertram de Souza

As the Mahoning Valley Sanitary District launches a marketing campaign, it might want to consider the following slogan: Water, water everywhere, but not enough customers to drink.

The MVSD, which has been providing drinking water to its member cities of Youngstown and Niles for the past 75 years, is in the enviable position — compared with drought-ridden regions in the southwestern part of the country — of having a lot more product than is being used.

During the summer, the purification plant in Mineral Ridge can produce 60 million gallons of water a day, but the demand currently is for only 27 million. Three hundred thousand customers are served by the cities of Youngstown and Niles and the village of McDonald.

Chief Engineer Tom Holloway, whose great-uncle was superintendent from 1904 to 1954, says the MVSD has the ability to double the number of users. Of course, the reality of the Mahoning Valley is such that there is no conceivable way 300,000 more customers will be signed up in this region. (The emphasis on those three words will become clear shortly).

In addition to the overall decline in population, the MVSD faces competition from Aqua Ohio and also must find a way of winning over residents of Campbell, which has its own filtration plant, and Cortland, which utilizes well water

But those aren’t the only hurdles to expanding the customer base.

Youngstown vs. the burbs

The current flap over water involving the city of Youngstown and the suburban townships of Austintown, Boardman and now Liberty threatens to become a geyser.

Youngstown Mayor Jay Williams, whose city is facing an economic implosion unless new sources of revenue are found, has turned water into an offensive weapon. Youngstown supplies drinking water to all of Austintown and portions of Boardman and Liberty.

In return, suburban customers pay a surcharge over the regular rates paid by city residents. But, Williams is of the opinion that his community deserves more. Thus, he wants to establish joint economic development districts in the suburbs so Youngstown can get tax revenue from businesses located in the JEDDs.

To date, his idea has gone over like a lead (water?) balloon.

Williams’ failure to get a JEDD in Liberty in the area that Wal-Mart is planning to build a superstore was a major defeat for the city of Youngstown. But the fight hasn’t ended.

Last week, Wal-Mart revealed that it would be putting its plans on hold because Youngstown’s water-use agreement requires that 25 percent of the jobs go to city residents.

Wal-Mart balked, thereby setting the stage for another rumble.

But while the battles rage, the Mahoning Valley Sanitary District, which does not have an independent source of revenue and operates with money paid by Youngstown, Niles and McDonald for bulk purchases, has an excess of water just waiting to be sold.

Think big

Rather than fight over crumbs, there is an opportunity for this region to make a killing — from the sale of drinking water to customers outside Mahoning and Trumbull counties.

If, as Holloway says, the MVSD could take on another 300,000 customers, how difficult would it be for the MVSD, led by Youngstown and Niles, to identify communities around the country that are in dire need of drinking water and negotiate prices for trucking the wet stuff to them?

Given the long history of droughts in many parts of the U.S. and the resultant water shortages, just putting out the word nationally that the MVSD could supply about 30 million gallons a day would bring a flurry of inquiries from communities that are becoming dust bowls.

In the extreme, the Valley could use water as a bargaining chip — with a major casino operator in Las Vegas, which has long been on a water alert as a result of Lake Meade’s drying up.

In return for locating a casino in this region, the owner of Bellagio or some other water guzzling entity would have exclusive rights to MVSD’s supply for its Vegas properties.

Ridiculous? No more so than the water fight raging between Youngstown and the suburbs.

The Valley has a valuable resource. We need to think like the Arabs.

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