Sat | Mar 2, 2024

St Jago Hills residents thirst for water

Water locked off as rate talks between developers, OUR remain at standstill

Published:Friday | June 2, 2023 | 12:45 AMKimone Francis/Senior Staff Reporter

An apparent impasse between the Office of Utilities Regulation (OUR) and the developers of the St Jago Hills housing scheme in St Catherine has resulted in a five-month water lock-off in the community, forcing residents to fork out as high as $21,...

An apparent impasse between the Office of Utilities Regulation (OUR) and the developers of the St Jago Hills housing scheme in St Catherine has resulted in a five-month water lock-off in the community, forcing residents to fork out as high as $21,000 per month to truck water to their homes.

Island Homes Jamaica, the parent company for St Jago Hills Development Company Limited (SJHDC), ceased supplying the community with water in December 2022, citing the high cost to do so while operating at a loss.

Island Homes developer Michael Lake, speaking with The Gleaner yesterday, said the company lost millions in the last year supplying approximately 140 households of the 300-lot community with water.

Added to that, Lake said a year-old application for a rate increase from the OUR has not received a response.

“We have been operating the water system at St Jago Hills for a number of years, each year representing significant losses. Last year, in 2022, we lost $10.5 million in total because we’ve had to subsidise the system,” said Lake of the 20-year-old community.

He said that the loss is because of the rate the OUR awarded the company to operate under. Lake said the rate is lower than what the National Water Commission (NWC) was allowed to charge customers at the time.

Lake said it was impossible to operate a small system at that low rate.

“So, having subsidised it for a number of years, we had communicated with the OUR, now over a year, for a rate increase, and they still have not awarded it. We just want a rate that someone can operate the system viably and provide the service that the OUR demands and the person, as the act allows, should be able to make a return on their investment,” he argued.

But in an emailed response to The Gleaner on Wednesday, the OUR said the review process for the SJHDC tariff application has been delayed for several reasons, including a requirement for more information from SJHDC to assist in assessing the application.

“Unfortunately, before the process was completed, the company decided to cease operations, effective December 31, 2022. We continue to work within our regulatory powers to make recommendations on the next course of action that will benefit residents in the community who SJHDC’s decision has severely inconvenienced.

“It is important to note that the OUR regulates the service once it is in place and has no statutory remit regarding the provisioning of supply,” the OUR said, adding that it had been making strident efforts to see how best the matter can be resolved.

Residents interviewed by The Gleaner on Wednesday argued that SJHDC’s monetary loss is due to the inefficiency of the water system it has in place.

Richard Foulks, who has been living in the community for two decades, said a generator is used to operate the water supply system, which is costly.

Additionally, he noted that the holding tank is not located at its highest point and so is dependent on electricity to pump water due to a lack of gravity feed. He also said the “very large” pipes, which require significant power to pump water, are also contributing factors to the problem.

Foulks said the community has had water issues since its inception, ranging from a ruptured pump liner which, he said, took a year to replace, while at other times the pump became compromised.

“From day one, we never had 24+hour running water. This has impacted our cost of living. It has limited how we operate in our day-to-day living. We have had to spend extra money to get water,” said Foulks, who now has three tanks.

He said it costs him $16,000 for the truck to deliver water to his household.

Prior to the discontinuation of the water supply, some residents told The Gleaner that they paid, on average, $3,000 monthly to SJHDC but said that water was provided only two days per week.

They were billed according to the amount of water used.

Another resident who shared her story, but asked not to be identified, said it costs $21,000 monthly to truck water to her house.

The woman noted that it costs $7,000 to fill her tank and said that this is done three times for the month.

“I try to set up a tank so that when it rains, I get that water, and I use that to do washing and other domestic things around the house. I buy separate water to drink, cook with and bathe because I can’t be too sure where the truck men get the water they sell us from,” she said.

Meanwhile, Lake said that the NWC, which provided a bulk metre connection while the generator used to pump water was down for a year, has indicated that it is “not willing to take over the development”.

He added: “They are indicating that even though they have had expansion, they don’t have sufficient water going up that Sligoville main road.”

Lake said that while he understands the plight of residents, the plight of the developers must be understood as well.

“We can’t keep operating a system at a loss.”