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Published: Thursday, 11/29/2012

On borrowed time

Toledo does not lack access to water; it draws from Lake Erie, one of the world’s greatest freshwater lakes. But by putting off a long list of basic improvements to the city’s century-old Collins Park water treatment plant, municipal officials past and present have pushed the facility beyond the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency’s comfort zone.

Toledo’s water quality is fine now. But the question is how long the city can prevent a crisis at the water plant if work doesn’t begin soon on some major fixes. Ohio EPA officials say Toledo has neglected maintenance at the water plant. This situation has evolved over decades.

The city allowed large chunks of the plant’s roof to collapse. A patchwork of repairs and a mesh screen were the only things that kept waste from breaching the plant, which could have forced it to shut down for weeks or even months.

Toledo City Council’s recent decision to borrow $15 million to build a new roof is only a down payment on what needs to be done to the plant. The city has identified $40 million in other projects, but the Ohio EPA cites the need for much more.

The state agency’s inventory is so extensive that Deputy Mayor Steve Herwat, in a recent conversation with The Blade’s editorial board, would not hazard a guess about the final tab. The projects include stocking more treatment chemicals and replacing leaky pipes, as well as bigger-ticket items such as an overhaul of obsolete electronic operating systems.

One of the most expensive fixes would be an expansion that would allow the plant to continue to run smoothly while portions of it are under repair. That flexibility is needed, given how many residential and business customers rely on Collins Park.

Toledo has Ohio’s fourth-lowest water rates, despite recent rate increases. Essentially flat revenue has not generated enough money for maintenance.

The odds that water rates will go up in 2013, when the mayor’s office and half of the 12 council seats are up for election, are slim. But Toledo’s water customers should realize that rates probably will have to increase the following year.

The city may have trouble dodging state and federal mandates to expedite work at the water plant in the meantime. City utility officials need council members’ support to phase in as much work as they can now.

Clean water can’t be compromised. It’s one of the city’s greatest selling points.

A new roof for the water plant is a necessity. But city officials need to deal with the reality that far more work needs to be done, without undue delay.

A series of pipes carries water through Toledo's Collins Park water treatment plant. A series of pipes carries water through Toledo's Collins Park water treatment plant.
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