A recently proposed development and the loss of millions of gallons of water in Montgomery since June have raised questions on how the city will provide water to residents as the city grows, officials said.

City Engineer Chris Roznovsky presented a feasibility study Oct. 8 for a proposed development—a 168-home, single-family development on Old Dobbin Plantersville Road—to Montgomery City Council.

Council Member Rebecca Huss said the development would require splitting services for Montgomery residents between an outside entity and the city. Whether this development is approved, any new development west of Hwy. 149 annexed by the city will require a different water service provider, which could provide challenges for Montgomery.

“I think it would be very difficult to be ... a public official ... [and the residents] see us popping up some manhole covers and they say, ‘Our water is terrible,’ and we say, ‘Oh, sorry, talk to some guy 20 miles to the west of us,” Huss said. “I think that that would be an untenable situation.”

Amid the concern surrounding potential annexation, the city is also facing water accountability problems from its current water contractor—Gulf Utility Service, which operates and maintains the city’s water services—since nearly 9 million gallons of water has been lost citywide in recent months.

Uncharted waters

As the city grows, so does its need for water management. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the city of Montgomery’s population grew from 639 in 2014 to 997 in 2017.

However, the city will still need to plan for growth outside of its current city limits, according to Rovnosky. The Old Dobbin Plantersville Road project is within the city’s extraterritorial jurisdiction, or ETJ, which is an area outside a city’s limit the city could annex in the future. Rovnosky said Montgomery would have to annex the land to provide services to the residents. However, the land is also outside the city’s water coverage area and would be serviced by a different water provider, Dobbin-Plantersville Water Supply Co.

Although council members voiced concerns with the Old Dobbin Plantersville Road project, Rovnosky said the city will have to develop a relationship with Dobbins-Plantersville Water Supply Co. regardless if the project is approved because the water supplier covers the majority of the territory outside of Montgomery’s city limits, including the city’s ETJ.

“Within the [proposed] neighborhood, there will be sewer lines that will be the city of Montgomery’s, and there will be water lines that will be Dobbins-Plantersville’s,” Rovnosky said. “And Dobbins and the city are going to have to have an agreement that they work out if there’s an issue—this is your responsibility; this is my responsibility.”

Huss said the city’s top priority is to provide high-quality and continuous services to its residents as it grows.

“We would serve everything else, but not water. So if there was a problem with the water, we would not be able to help,” Huss said. “So these are our taxpayers—we have a duty to them—but we’re not able to solve a key problem. I mean, those houses would not be livable if there was a water problem.”

Although this would be Montgomery’s first major partnership with a private company to provide services to its residents, Rovnosky said many residents are used to paying bills to separate entities such as Xfinity or Entergy.

Rovnosky said the Old Dobbin Plantersville Road project is the first project in the region that has gotten to the point of a feasibility study, and although the city’s growth is not limited or focused in one particular area, setting up a relationship between the two entities is essential in the city’s potential growth west of Hwy. 149, where most of the region is within Dobbins-Plantersville’s service area.

Longtime provider, first-time leak

Although Montgomery may have future dealings with Dobbin-Plantersville Water Supply Co., city officials said its current water situation is going through a difficult period.

The city of Montgomery and Gulf Utility Service have been working together for approximately six years, City Administrator Richard Tramm said. Gulf Utility Service operates as the city’s contract consultant, and its primary job is to operate the water and wastewater utility systems, he explained. Huss said the service Gulf Utility Service provides is necessary because of the current size of Montgomery.

“But lately some of the metrics that we used to see how well we’re doing have been unsatisfactory,” Huss said.

Since June, Montgomery has had 8.9 million gallons of water go missing, and Gulf Utility Service has taken the heat for it from City Council. Michael Williams, the vice president of operations for Gulf Utility Service, first presented the problem at an Aug. 27 council meeting, when water accountability—or how much of the water the city provided has been paid and accounted for—was down to 82%. Williams said the city typically has a 95% rating.

Huss said she is concerned about Gulf Utility Service’s slow-moving response.

“The seriousness with which the city takes these numbers and the accountability is greater than Gulf’s seriousness, unfortunately,” Huss said.

Gulf Utility Service identified an overflow in September at Montgomery’s water plant, where a pump’s control did not shut off once the pump reached capacity, Williams said.

At a regular meeting Nov. 12, Muckleroy told City Council a city employee discovered another potential source for the leak behind the Kroger Marketplace at 20168 Eva St., Montgomery. Muckleroy said the leak probably leaked about 125 gallons a minute. The leak was not discovered until now because the city’s sewer plant also flows into the creek.

However, Williams said it will be several months before the city sees an improvement in its water accountability.

“When I report [in] January, you’ll have middle of October to the middle of November, you’ll see an increase,” Williams said.

Changing tides

Because the city is still relatively small, Tramm said it makes financial sense to continue contracting its water services to Gulf Utility Service. However, as the city grows, it should consider providing its own water services, he said.

“As the city of Montgomery has grown now, I think it’s getting closer to the point where it will take on its own operations in the future,” Tramm said. “I hesitate to put any exact numbers to it, but if the city continues like it is, I can easily see it in the next couple years.”

The exact cost of operating its own water supply is hard to determine, according to Tramm. He said the city would have to hire several full-time employees, which could be problematic. Although Gulf Coast Utility employees are not on-site every day, it has the personnel to balance out all of its clients at a low cost, he said.

“If we [the city] have full-time staff doing that, if there’s not as much work at those facilities, then either we’re overemployed at that position, or we’re moving them out to find additional work,” Tramm said.

Tramm said the city pays Gulf Utility Service anywhere from $10,000 to $30,000 a month depending on how often its employees are in Montgomery. Muckleroy said that is reflective of the changing nature of the work.

“One month, you may not have but just a few issues, and then the next month a storm may come through and cause several electrical issues,” Muckleroy said.

In comparison, the nearby city of Magnolia, which provides its own water, will spend approximately

$3.172 million on its water services in the 2019-20 fiscal year, according to the city’s budget. The U.S. Census Bureau estimated Magnolia had a population of 2,105 in 2018.

As the city grows, Tramm said council is also considering building a second wastewater treatment plant. However, although the project is “under discussion in terms of planning for future growth,” no decisions or action has been made, and no cost estimate has been made, he said.

Williams estimated the city would have to double in size to take on its own water service. But when or if it does, he said there may be a period of time in which Gulf Utility Service provides support.

Tramm said with the rate the city is growing, in two to five years the city will likely take on its own water department. But no matter which water provider the city is dealing with, Tramm said the first priority is always the residents.

“It’s incumbent on parties on both sides of that relationship to communicate and try to have the best relationship possible because they serve the same customers; they serve the same public, they just serve it with a different service,” Tramm said.