Culkin water transfer, upgrades may have to wait on politics|[01/17/08]

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 17, 2008

Improvements for the Culkin Water District and a long-discussed transfer of county-owned infrastructure at Ceres Research and Industrial Interplex may hinge on the strength of Mississippi’s congressional delegation and its influence after this year’s elections.

While a contract was recently awarded to Jackson-based Delta Constructors to install a new water main and hydrants in the Redwood service area of the water company, a new tank in Bovina and other revamps of aging water lines districtwide planned over the next two to five years may have to wait.

Culkin is among, if not the largest and oldest water associations in Mississippi. Once serving a few dozen homes, its service area has included what has been Warren County’s fastest-growing residential and commercial quadrant for the past 50 years. It now supplies about 4,150 customers northeast of the Vicksburg municipal system, which has 10,000 meters.

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A broad updating of its network of pipes was approved more than two years ago by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for grants that would reimburse 75 percent of construction costs, but federal grants to water districts are getting closer scrutiny.

“The entire Army Corps budget is an earmark,” Warren County Port Commission executive director Wayne Mansfield said.

The Corps’ Mississippi Valley Division for civil works was to receive $813 million for fiscal year 2008. The Corps’ Vicksburg District received about $155 million in the federal budget for fiscal year 2007. In 2007, the Culkin governing board passed $3.5 million in general obligation bonds to couple to pay for improvements, along with expected state loans. An $800,000 loan from the Mississippi Department of Health came through in August, and the water recycling system Culkin built using the money netted a public health award along with three other states participating in the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund.

Other upgrades included in Culkin’s nearly $5 million improvement package, like the addition of a fourth well to double Culkin’s water purifying capacity to 4 million gallons daily, may be “pushed back further down the road,” Culkin general manager Ken McClellan said, remaining hopeful.

“There’s several different avenues we can take,” McClellan said.

As change has rumbled through the state’s predominately Republican congressional team since the Democrats took over both houses in 2006, Mansfield, a former Vicksburg city planner, said he will continue furthering county interests with reliable sources.

“With the city, we had help with grants and things,” Mansfield said. “Now, I’m not sure who to call.”

While the help of U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Bolton, will be sought to preserve funding for the Culkin improvements, much of Mansfield’s list of contacts will change.

U.S. Rep. Chip Pickering announced in December he would not seek re-election to the post representing the cross-state 3rd District, where nine candidates have filed to run in party primaries March 11. U.S. Rep. Roger Wicker, R-Pontotoc, was appointed Dec. 31 to fill the vacancy left by Trent Lott just 12 days earlier.

Another issue between the district and the commission expected to be tackled this year is transferring the water tower and lines serving industries at Ceres from county control to district ownership.

“We don’t have the means to maintain the infrastructure,” Mansfield said. McClellan has said owning the lines is a long-range goal and a necessity for the district.

The Culkin Water District was authorized in the 1950s by the Mississippi Legislature. Its major commercial users are River Region Medical Center and industries located at Ceres Research and Industrial Interplex.

Its rates are not regulated by the Mississippi Public Service Commission, but its water quality is measured by state health officials.

Culkin’s five-member board of directors is appointed by Warren County supervisors, who claim no regulatory authority beyond making the quadrennial appointments.

Culkin is the largest of the five independent water providers outside Vicksburg city limits. Next largest is Fisher Ferry, which serves about 1,800 customers in south-central Warren County.

The others are the Hilldale Water District, which provides water to residents east of Halls Ferry and south of U.S. 80., Yokena-Jeff Davis Water District and the Eagle Lake Water District.