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Tiny village of Hopewell must launch a costly overhaul of failing water system

Over five dozen Hopewell residents attended an April 23 open meeting to hear the village's plan to overhaul its water treatment system.
Tim Alexander
Over five dozen Hopewell residents attended an April 23 open meeting to hear the village's plan to overhaul its water treatment system.

The 418 residents of the village of Hopewell will see their monthly water bills rise to as much as $133 per month in order to pay for a new water treatment system, the chairman of the community’s waterworks committee indicated during a public meeting.

At issue: the village’s current water treatment facility, which is at the end of its usable life, must be replaced in order to avoid further fines and penalties imposed by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA). In exchange for implementing the construction of the new facility, IEPA has agreed to cap all past fines and fees imposed on the village at $6,000.

Estimated at a cost of around $5.1 million by the engineering firm Klingler and Associates of Galesburg, the water treatment system will include a new well and pump, water treatment facility and water tower. Funding the new water treatment system will require residents to pay more for their water usage, according to committee leader Jim Moroz, who addressed over 60 curious residents during the April 23 town hall meeting.

“This project is essential to our health, safety and quality of life,” said Moroz. “The upgrade project is vital to addressing issues with our current water infrastructure and reaching compliance with federal and state EPA. The pump failure in July 2022 resulted in an extended outage which required the Red Cross to provide us with drinking water, and caused some residents to do laundry and take showers elsewhere.”

Moroz described how the antiquity of the previous water system left workers scrambling to secure replacement parts. When parts could be located, few technicians could be found to work on the obsolete equipment. In addition, the village’s water tower does not provide adequate volume or pressure, which precludes robust hydrant flushing and often results in boil orders. The lack of adequate water pressure also hinders first responders attempting to put out fires.

Furthermore, “Two wells are required by state and federal regulations; that’s standard now. We must also provide an on-site electric power generator to ensure that the treatment system can continue to run during an electric utility outage," Moroz said. “We are in a dark place at this point.”

Moroz went on to say that Hopewell's wastewater discharge system continues to operate in violation of IEPA standards. “We have been in violation for the last five years. We could have been fined up to $50,000 per violation plus $10,000 per day,” he said.

Hopewell community leaders met with the Illinois Assistant Attorney General’s Office in October 2023, resulting in a reduction of the fines assessed over the past five years to just $6,000 in total-- but only if the village moves ahead with the overhaul of its water treatment system to bring it into compliance.

Engineers have estimated the cost for a new well and 50-horsepower pump at $1.7 million. A new water treatment plant will cost an estimated $1.1 million, as will a new, 150 foot tall, 50,000 gallon water tower. Costs incurred during construction and other expenses associated with the project may total another $1.2 million, bringing the total estimated cost for the project to $5.1 million.

Most of the 60 or so residents present at the meeting came to find out just how much the project would cost them in increased water usage fees. Moroz didn’t attempt to sugarcoat the news.

“The present estimate of the average monthly bill is $133 per household. Presently the average household uses around 6,000 gallons, and the bill for that 6,000 gallons is $73,” he said.

The new water system will be paid for using a loan secured from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service Water and Environmental Program (WEP), which focuses on the water infrastructure needs of rural communities with less than 10,000 residents. The new water rate structure adopted by the village would assign the repayment of the loan to residents through increased water usage rates.

“This is a low interest loan of around one to two percent to be paid over the next 40 years,” Moroz said. “It’s a good deal.”

In addition to Klingler and Associates, which is charged with designing the new water system, the village’s water committee is also working closely with the Illinois Rural Water Association, which will provide training on the new system for waterworks operators.

Installation of the new water treatment system would bring Hopewell into compliance with federal and state regulations, establish efficient emergency and disaster mitigation, and provide residents with a clean, safe and reliable water supply, according to Moroz. “We are in the dark before the dawn. (But) we are going to get ourselves into the new age of data-driven monitoring and avoid expensive repairs in the future. It can be done, and we need to get up and do it,” he said.

The waterworks committee chairman said he expects the USDA loan to be finalized by the end of April. Once the loan is secured a water filtration system would be installed, likely during July. Next, the new tower must be completed, along with wastewater facility upgrades. By December 2025, the new wastewater treatment plant should be serving Hopewell residents, Moroz said.

America’s aging water infrastructure not limited to Illinois

The public meeting was held at Longman Hall in Chillicothe, a nearby town of around 6,000 people who are facing their own increases in water usage fees. On April 25, Chillicothe Mayor Mike Hughes and the Chillicothe City Council issued a letter warning residents that their water rates would soon increase due to the cost of repairs to aging waterworks infrastructure and operational expenses.

“Our infrastructure includes water mains, pump houses, valves, lift stations, and water towers. Much of this infrastructure is aging and is in need of maintenance and-or replacement. In recent years, we have had to delay needed infrastructure projects and maintenance due to our revenue situation. The recent well replacement cost the City $500,000,” the announcement read, in part. “Also, we were recently notified that we were ineligible for a grant opportunity because our water rates were too low; further evidence that we need to increase our rates.”

There are nearly 60,000 community water systems in the U.S., with 93 percent of the systems serving populations of less than 10,000 people. As is the case in Hopewell, 67 percent of U.S. water systems serve less than 500 people. In 2015, nine percent of all water systems had documented water quality violations, exposing 21 million people to unhealthy drinking water. The majority of these violations occurred in rural communities, according to the American Bar Association.

More help is on the way for small communities whose water infrastructure systems are aging out. In February, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that funding totaling $772.6 million will be made available for 216 water system infrastructure projects.

In addition, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provides $11.7 billion through the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF), with 49 percent of funding available as grants or principal forgiveness. The fund is intended to provide a pathway for underserved communities that might not otherwise be able to access traditional loans to address their wastewater infrastructure needs. From the fund, $206 million went to Illinois for grants or principal forgiveness loans.

Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding can also be leveraged with other key federal sources such as USDA’s Rural Development WEP funding, according to a March U.S. EPA news release.

In 2023, the IEPA provided Illinois communities with more than $800 million for drinking water and wastewater projects through their State Revolving Fund program.

Tim Alexander is a correspondent for WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.