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SWA to purchase 5,000 satellite meter readers

The days of manually reporting water usage could soon be over for thousands of rural Southwest Water customers. After years of discussion, the Southwest Water Authority Board of Directors on Tuesday approved the purchase of 5,000 satellite-read s...

The days of manually reporting water usage could soon be over for thousands of rural Southwest Water customers.
After years of discussion, the Southwest Water Authority Board of Directors on Tuesday approved the purchase of 5,000 satellite-read systems for water meters across the region, but how the agency will pay for the new technology is yet to be decided.
“It will be a huge benefit,” CEO Mary Massad said. “Customers will no longer have to read their own meters.”
Satellite-read equipment will connect to existing meter systems and submit water-usage data to the authority via satellite systems, improving accuracy of reporting, catching leaks more quickly and cracking down on water theft, directors reasoned.
The readers would cut down on time and pressure on limited water distribution center staff; Southwest Water Authority representatives have to visit as many as 80 meters per month to assist customers.
“The difficulty is finding people,” distribution manager Lee Messer said following the board meeting. “We’re having staffing issues. To eliminate this would be a great help to our people.”
A motion on the issue of automated readers was discussed and tabled at the board’s previous meeting in July. New customers who sign on to the water system after construction on the new southwest pipeline will be required to buy satellite read meters, but Massad said that with the span of Southwest Water’s services - stretching 12 counties from the Montana border to Lake Sakakawea - a system-wide implementation of automatic readers “is our only option.”
She said the organization has been looking into revamping older meters since at least 1998. Automatic satellite-reader systems have been implemented on a smaller scale in some towns in southwest North Dakota, including the Beulah-Hazen area, Messer said; individual customers can also buy their own readers, sparing them the monthly task of reporting usage numbers back to the authority.
At $473 per meter, though, and a $5 per month per meter reading fee paid to the satellite company, the board has yet to decide who will foot the bill - or how they’ll pay it.
George Saxowksy, representing Morton County, spoke out on satellite readers, questioning whether the technology benefits the authority at the expense of the customer.
“Most of the benefits I see are benefitting Southwest and not the purchaser of the water,” he said. “(The customer’s) being charged for the benefit of this meter read.”
He said he is in favor of the meter readers, but “not in the way they’re being paid or the way they are being billed to the water users.”
Massad acknowledged that the new reader system will increase overall expenses, but the “impacts will be minimal,” she said.
Directors discussed the possibility of absorbing the added $5 per meter, or raising water rates by anywhere from 49 to 99 cents in the 2015-2017 biennium.
“There have to be operating expenses,” Massad said. “And we’ll have to cover it.”
The board will review how to cover costs at a future meeting when it reviews its upcoming budget.
Faulx is a reporter with The Press. Contact her at 701-456-1207.

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