Like many communities across the country, Columbia, Missouri, is working hard to meet the challenge of managing its water infrastructure and maintaining long-term quality of service. Home to over 107,000 residents, with an annual growth rate of 1.5 to 3 percent, Columbia has found its forward-looking approach to infrastructure management to be critical.
The Columbia Water and Light Department (CWLD), which oversees Columbia’s water utility, is run as a self-funding enterprise fund. CWLD reports to the city council, city manager, and a council-appointed advisory board. The city’s leadership has taken numerous steps to support effective and efficient practices that will sustain their water systems for the long term.
Prior to 1985, financial accounting for Columbia’s water and electric utilities was not separated; since then, cost accounting and budgets have been made completely independent. This important step has allowed the city to better plan for the needs of both.
Today, Columbia has a comprehensive plan that estimates the city’s water infrastructure needs for the next 20 years. This plan includes a five-year capital improvement plan (CIP) that is incorporated into the city’s budget. Capital projects are funded by municipal debt (e.g., revenue bonds) that is approved by the voters.
Because Columbia’s comprehensive plan calls for improvements in many areas of water-related infrastructure, the city council and city manager try to spread rate increases evenly, with a number of small increases instead of large jumps in rates. The CWLD does not receive tax subsidies (although some of Columbia’s public services do); instead, the CWLD is completely supported by user fees.
Customers are assessed a commodity charge per hundred cubic feet of water plus a fixed meter charge. The meter charge for a typical household is approximately one-third of the water bill, and the volume charge makes up the other two-thirds. The revenue generated by these rates covers debt retirement, capital improvement, operating and maintenance costs, and all other costs. Columbia’s rates are lower than those of surrounding water districts and are competitive with neighboring cities of similar size.
Complementing the city’s comprehensive plan and CIP, is their asset management program. Asset management is an approach through which infrastructure investments are prioritized to meet the needs and goals of the community at the least cost. Columbia uses asset management to make sure they are investing in the right places at the right time.
Columbia’s successes in addressing their water infrastructure needs are also a result of effective efforts to build community support for improvements. The comprehensive plan and the CIP help citizens to understand the major projects and capital needs in the city’s future. Columbia’s charter requires the city manager to submit an annual list of priorities to the city council, informally known as the “state of the city” address. This report is usually followed by a city council retreat that is covered by the local media. Community television stations are invited to these presentations, and the meetings are re-broadcast several times. With council approval, the initiative is placed on the ballot in the next election cycle. In the interim, the city council appoints a committee that is charged with educating the community about the issue. These committees raise their own funds and are often successful at passing ballot measures.
CWLD emphasizes the importance of continuous contact with citizens when undertaking infrastructure initiatives. Over the years, CWLD has built a strong relationship with Columbia’s citizens.
For more details on Columbia efforts and those of other local governments, check out the case studies here. This page is part of a new EPA website that has information and resources for local officials who are looking to meet the challenge posed by their aging water infrastructure systems. Built around “Five Things You Should Know” and “ Five Things You Should Do,” the site offers a grounding in water infrastructure issues and concrete steps local officials can take to move their systems towards long-term sustainability.