Maine considers water shortage readiness

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

In the midst of a regulatory inquiry into Maine water utilities' ability to prepare for and respond to water supply emergencies, agency staff have issued a preliminary recommendation intended to stimulate further discussion and comment -- which could ultimately lead to changes in how Maine regulates water utilities and water supply.

2016 brought drought to much of Maine. According to a Notice of Inquiry issued by the Maine Public Utilities Commission that year, the drought posed special challenges for some of Maine's water systems with limited sources of supply -- especially those with significant seasonal demands, antiquated infrastructure, or high levels of non-revenue water. In response, the Commission opened an inquiry to gather information that will allow it to identify problems and identify collaborative and proactive solutions. The Commission received responsive comments from about a dozen water utilities, and staff conducted additional research on the topic.

On March 5, 2018, the Commission staff issued its Preliminary Recommendation in regard to the Inquiry. The document describes its recommendations as preliminary and “intended to stimulate further discussion and comment on the issues raised in the document”. It says its intended audience “is broader than the usual participants in Commission proceedings and includes entities that may not be familiar with Commission practices and governing statutes.”

Findings in the 36-page Preliminary Recommendation include:

  • Maine’s 152 water utilities responded well to the 2016 drought.
  • Most of Maine's water utilities should be allowed to make their own decisions regarding water supply emergencies.
    • Most Maine water utilities have the ability to adequately prepare for, and respond to, a water supply emergency.
    • Water supply emergencies are not amenable to a one-size-fits-all approach because of the wide variety of potential circumstances.
    • All Maine water utilities should be required to prepare some sort of Emergency Response Plan, and all that experience a water supply emergency should be required to prepare an after-action report.
  • Water utilities need clearly-defined authority to respond to a water supply emergency -- ideally in the utility's Terms and Conditions.
  • Various entities can provide help to a water utility that needs assistance preparing for, and responding to, a water supply emergency. Support can come from neighboring systems, membership organizations, and state agencies.
  • State agencies should work cooperatively to support water utilities before, during, and after a water supply emergency.
  • Effective communication before and during a water supply emergency is critical.
  • Some Maine water utilities are more vulnerable to a water supply emergency and may need assistance -- especially those with a limited source of supply, aging infrastructure, high levels of non-revenue/unaccounted-for water, seasonal demands, and lack of metered service. Other challenges include a lack of resources, recalcitrant customers, and local socioeconomic factors, or excessively prioritizing low rates over critical system improvements.

Commission staff has requested written comments by March 30. It said it is considering holding between two and five workshops across Maine to solicit oral comments about the Preliminary Recommendation, after which it will draft a Final Recommendation for the Commission’s review.

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