Aqua Maine Inc. filed a water rate increase request for its Camden and Rockland Division on Feb. 26 with the Maine Public Utilities Commission. The request is for a 23.6 percent increase in revenue, or $1,127,000 annually. The PUC has up to nine months to review the request and make a final decision, although a decision could be made sooner. All customers will be mailed a notice of this proceeding, which outlines their rights to participate in the process.

According to a March 2 press release, the rate increase request is driven primarily by the addition of a $7.2 million membrane filtration facility at Mirror Lake to comply with new water quality regulations, along with the operating expenses associated with the water treatment facility.

Aqua Maine Vice President for Operations Richard Knowlton said March 2 that two federal rules guided the decision to build the new filtration system. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Long Term 2 Enhanced Surface Water Treatment Rule was enacted in response to an incident in 1993, in which 400,000 people in Milwaukee became ill and 59 people died as a result of the presence of a microorganism named cryptosporidium. Those who died already suffered from compromised immune systems, Knowlton said.

“In most states the treatment for cryptosporidium is filtration,” Knowlton said. “In Maine, with unfiltered surface water systems like Mirror Lake, it can also include ozone or ultraviolet treatment.” He said those methods are often effective where chlorine is not.

The EPA’s Stage Two Disinfectants and Disinfection Byproducts Rule, instituted in January 2006, dictated Aqua Maine’s choice of filtration, Knowlton said. He said ozone and UV systems would require the use of increased amounts of chlorine to protect against residual disinfectants in pipes and other parts of the distribution system.

“That’s not needed as much with filtration,” he said. “Filtration truly is removing organic material that comes out of the lake.”

“The problem is that filtration also happens to be slightly more expensive for this location,” he said. Knowlton said many states have already required filtration as a result of a surface water treatment rule that’s been in effect since 1986, and the choice for Mirror Lake was made in anticipation of Maine or the federal government adopting filtration as the only approved method at some future date.

Knowlton said in June that Mirror Lake, which has been providing water to area communities since 1893, is basically pristine, but there are inconsistencies in the quality of the water that flows through lines in different parts of the system. He said new filters will take all the water up to the highest standard and customers will taste the difference once the new plant goes online in late 2010.

“We’re hoping that customers will notice less chlorine than they do right now, especially at certain times of the year,” Aqua Maine President Judy Kelley said.

Knowlton said Aqua Maine would continue to manage the forested buffer areas around Mirror Lake and Grassy Pond in order to maintain the quality of the company’s drinking water.

Currently water flows from Mirror Lake to the community storage tanks by a gravity feed system. The polysulfone membrane fibers in the new system — the first membrane filtration system in the state — will require the water to be forced through under pressure. While Knowlton said new filters offer the most efficient process available, the addition of the system means the facility will use more electricity than it currently does. This is because any filtration process requires pumping the water through the filters. Some of the added electrical requirements will be saved through the installation of 1,000 square feet of solar panels that will be used to heat water for cleaning the filters each day.

The building addition is being constructed under Leadership Energy Environmental Design standards.

The membranes selected for the filtration plant are the lowest pressure membranes that will meet the needed drinking water standards, Knowlton said. The filtration system is designed and assembled by the Pall Corporation in Cortland, N.Y., using membrane modules from Japan. The entire project was awarded to low-bidder Apex Construction of Rochester, N.H.

“Although the lake has been unfiltered for more than 120 years, we will begin to filter the water in 2010 to comply with new federal and state drinking water regulations,” Kelley said in the March 2 press release. “We expect the addition to be online in August this year.” Compared with traditional technology, membrane filtration requires a smaller building footprint, uses fewer chemicals in the treatment process, and results in less wasted water from the backwash and filter cleaning process, the press release said.

About one half of the new filter plant is being funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, so-called stimulus funds. The state has awarded $3.6 million toward the new filtration facility, of which $1.1 million is a grant and the balance is at a zero percent interest rate.

If the rate increase is approved in full, the cost of water will have increased 3 percent on an annualized basis since 1995, the press release said. Currently, the average Aqua Maine customer in the Midcoast pays $293 per year. This represents the price for 110 gallons per day or 5,200 cubic feet of water per year. If the PUC approves the rate request, that annual price will increase to $382.64 a year, or $95.66 per quarter.

The PUC approved a 5.5 percent overall increase in water rates for Aqua Maine’s Camden and Rockland division in September. That was less than the 7.28 percent the company requested on May 7, 2009, for operating expense increases and the completion of a new 400,000-gallon Thomaston water storage tank to replace one that had been in use since 1927. In September 2008, the company received approval of a 6.6 percent increase that was requested to cover about a million dollars in capital expenditures spent since a previous increase, Kelley said.

The Camden and Rockland water system serves 7,700 customers in Rockland, Camden, Rockport, Thomaston, Owls Head, Warren and Union and is one of 20 Maine water systems owned or operated by Aqua Maine.

History, ownership of Aqua Maine

The Camden and Rockland Water Company was organized in 1885 under an amendment to the original charter granted by the state of Maine. After incorporation, the central elements of the present system were constructed, and consisted of an intake at Mirror Lake, a 10-inch transmission line to Rockland, and a branch to Camden and Rockport. The company also built the Juniper Hill reservoir in Rockland and the Chickawaukie Pond pump station, and a portion of the distribution system.

In 1895, the company acquired the property of the Rockland Water Company, which had been incorporated in 1850 to serve what was then the Rockland Village. In 1959, Consumers Water Company of Portland acquired the Camden and Rockland Water Company through the majority of the stock.

Today the company, now named Aqua Maine, is a wholly owned subsidiary of the publicly held Aqua America Inc. (formerly Philadelphia Suburban Corporation). According to the Web site at aquaamerica.com, Aqua America is the nation’s largest U.S.-based, investor-owned water utility, providing water and wastewater services to approximately 3 million people in Pennsylvania, Ohio, North Carolina, Illinois, Texas, New Jersey, New York, Indiana, Florida, Virginia, Maine, Missouri and South Carolina. Aqua America continues to grow its operations through acquisitions and its common shares are traded on both the New York and Philadelphia stock exchanges under the ticker symbol WTR.