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Hardy water gets costlier

Isle of Wight County’s plan to buy water from Smithfield to supply the planned replacement Hardy Elementary School just got costlier.

Last fall, county officials had budgeted roughly $27 million for the replacement Hardy when borrowing upwards of $34 million to fund the new school and other capital needs. About a month after holding a public hearing on the new debt, county officials learned additional money would be needed to find a new water source for the new school.

Don Jennings, the county’s utilities director, had offered two solutions: drill a new well — one equipped with reverse osmosis filtration to remove the excess fluoride in the existing school’s water supply — or buy water from Smithfield, which operates its own reverse osmosis plant. The county chose the Smithfield option, which Jennings estimated would cost around $2.2 million.

But now with the new school set to break ground this month, the cost of the water project has nearly doubled to $4.29 million — and that’s just the cost of design work and construction. While it factors in the rising cost of building materials seen in recent months nationwide and a 10% contingency budget, it doesn’t include the amount the county will pay Smithfield for the water, nor the expense of expanding Smithfield’s RO plant beyond its current capacity of 1.5 million gallons per day.

“Frankly, this is the worst time to entertain a project like this because material prices are so variable,” Jennings said during a June 3 work session of the county’s Board of Supervisors. “In this case we don’t have the luxury of waiting for the market to come back.”

Town officials estimate the cost of upgrading the RO plant at upwards of $1 million, which Smithfield could potentially ask that the county help fund depending on how many of the upgrades are tied directly to the Hardy deal.

Part of the reason for the near-doubling of costs is the Hardy plans now call for the construction of a 500,000-gallon on-site water tower rather than the 250,000-gallon one proposed last fall. According to Assistant County Administrator Don Robertson, about 250,000 gallons alone will be needed to store enough volume for the school’s fire suppression sprinkler system. The additional volume is mandated by the Virginia Department of Health on a per-customer basis, as the tank will also serve several surrounding neighborhoods currently connected to county-owned wells that are also high in fluoride.

Since the water issues came to the county’s attention only after the public hearing on the new debt, none of the costs associated with extending Smithfield’s water mains to Hardy were included in the money the county borrowed last fall, even though the high fluoride levels at the current Hardy have been known to school officials for several years.

Per U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards, Hardy Elementary is required to test its drinking water every three years. According to data supplied by Isle of Wight County Schools spokeswoman Lynn Briggs last October, Hardy’s then-most recent test results from 2017 showed a fluoride concentration of 3.57 milligrams per liter. Three years prior to that, the reported concentration was 3.5 mg/L.

The EPA has set a legal limit of 4 mg/L, but concentrations above 2.0 mg/L can cause tooth discoloration and/or pitting in children, according to the federal agency’s website. Because of this, Isle of Wight’s utilities department recommended a treated water source to replace the old well for the new school.

The county is anticipating receiving $7.2 million from the American Rescue Plan — a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package Congress approved in March that, according to County Administrator Randy Keaton, includes funds for localities that can be used to pay for water and sewer infrastructure.

“My proposal would be that we dedicate a good portion of those funds to do this project,” Keaton said.