When Aqua Indiana last year asked its customers to rate the value for the dollar of its service, 1 percent said it had improved, 45 percent said nothing had changed and 54 percent said things had gotten worse.
As one of the private water and sewer utility's 12,000 customers in southwest Allen County, I suspect that last number has grown even larger in the wake of a prolonged drought that has taxed the company's capacity and caused some to question its competence.
If Aqua officials are right, some of the very customers complaining about low pressure may have themselves contributed to the problem by ignoring the company's plea that they refrain from unnecessary use of water, such as watering lawns.
But the very fact that they imposed an every-other-day lawn watering schedule and then an outright ban when their Fort Wayne customers did not – then resolved the problem slowly and by tapping into City Utilities' pipes – should make even the holdouts wonder whether those more than 20 Aboite Township neighborhoods weren't right last year when they supported the purchase of Aqua Indiana by the city.
Unprecedented demand will test any utility, and that's just what Vice President Bill Etzler said has resulted from high temperatures and a prolonged drought so severe that county officials have banned most outdoor use of fire. But when public safety is at stake – as it is without an adequate and reliable water supply – a utility must do whatever is necessary to meet that demand.
I'm sure they're trying, but the company's performance has seemed sluggish at best. A water-main break blamed for some of the pressure problems took too long to fix, and when Aqua eventually tried to accept city water, a valve malfunctioned, further delaying the relief.
Since the quality of the company's water was the focus of a scathing ad in last year's mayoral election, widespread concerns about the quantity of that water should be especially troubling to company officials, who are already battling the city in court over the value of its takeover of Aqua's system in northern Allen County four years ago.
Superimposed over a glass of brown goo, the ad insisted that Mayor Tom Henry had been “fighting to ensure better water and cheaper prices for Aqua Indiana customers” and that challenger Paula Hughes “doesn't think the city needs to do anything to protect us.”
As a good Republican, Hughes told me at the time she questioned how aggressive government should be toward a private business “if health is not at stake.” It's a sentiment I share. But do recent events indicate that we are too close to that point for comfort, or were they – as Etzler insists – simply an anomaly not likely to be repeated?
It's up to Aqua officials to make certain it's the latter.
We have, however, seen a version of this movie before, when a drought in the late 1990s compelled Aqua to tap the city's water supply. So perhaps Mitch Harper, who represents much of Aboite Township on City Council, was right when he suggested that the city and Aqua reach some sort of agreement that would allow the company easy and immediate access to city water whenever necessary.
In fact, both sides told me last year they were discussing ways they could work together. The need and public demand for such cooperation would seem even greater now.
That same 2011 survey contained other results that, for the company, were mixed at best: Seventeen percent of customers said they were very satisfied and 45.5 percent somewhat satisfied, but 25 percent were somewhat dissatisfied and 12.5 percent very dissatisfied. In terms of reliability, 14 percent said it has improved, 8 percent thought it had declined and 78 percent reported no change.
Have those numbers gotten worse for Aqua Indiana? If so, it's in the company's best interest to do something about it. City Utilities has its own issues, including a $240 million federal mandate to reduce water pollution, but the ad that seemed relatively unimportant just days before an election somehow seems much more relevant today.