Leadership vacuum turns 125 years old

As Kentucky American Water observes the 125th anniversary of Lexington's first waterworks, the history that's being celebrated bears more than a passing resemblance to current events.

By the last quarter of the 19th century, the stench that hung over Lexington in warm months, along with periodic large fires, made the need for a municipal waterworks pungently obvious.

Despite that, the city's elected leaders recoiled at any mention of the T-word.

Louisville, Atlanta, Cincinnati, even Maysville had built city-owned waterworks. But Lexington's leaders would have let the whole place burn down rather than tax anyone to pay for a water system. Besides, some reasoned, water would put us on a slippery slope to sewers.

An advocate of small government circa 1882 said it this way: "Which will do the most to encourage the investment of capital in Lexington, the growth of manufactories, and the increase of a substantial population: waterworks and heavy taxation, or no waterworks and light taxation?"

Fortunately, a small group of local businessmen, led by Gilbert H. King (father of librarian Margaret I. King), had a clearer vision.

They undertook the daunting task of raising capital from eastern financiers and overcoming public scepticism and the opposition of the Chamber of Commerce to finally convince the city council and legislature to grant a charter for an investor-owned waterworks. (A large fire on the day of the council vote didn't hurt.)

Once the charter was granted, hundreds of convicts were encamped on the outskirts of town to construct the dam and excavate Lake Ellerslie on Richmond Road, and the streets were torn up for the construction of water mains and pipes.

The crowd that celebrated the inauguration of water service in 1885 was treated to the spectacle of fire hoses and hydrants shooting water into the sky, climaxing with a column of water that topped the weather vane on the new courthouse.

Gilbert King didn't live to celebrate, having died from a sudden illness.

Lexington's locally controlled water company passed through several reorganizations but remained independent until 1927. Then it was acquired by a holding company that was acquired by another company that was the predecessor of the American Water Works Co., since renamed American Water and now the largest U.S. investor-owned water utility company with subsidiaries in 19 states.

Fast forward to 2007 as Kentucky American sought permission to build a $162 million treatment plant and 31-mile pipeline. Mayor Jim Newberry refused pleas to try to work out a cheaper plan that would perhaps also provide a better long-term solution to the water supply deficit. Newberry steadfastly remained on the sidelines, but is now protesting a rate increase that KAW seeks to pay for the new infrastructure. The rate request will be the subject of a public hearing Wednesday in Lexington.

Also this week, a judge in Frankfort took to task the Kentucky River Authority and state Division of Water for abdicating their responsibilities to take the lead in water planning.

Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd ruled Monday in a challenge of the Public Service Commission's approval of the new treatment plant and pipeline.

Shepherd wrote that KAW's plans addressed the water supply problem from the "limited perspective of the private investors" who own the water company.

But given the planning vacuum, the PSC had no choice but to approve KAW's plan, Shepherd ruled, even though it "lacks the comprehensive approach to conservation of our state's water resources and the environment that the legislature entrusted to KRA, the Environmental and Public Protection Cabinet and local governments."

Lexington is one of a very few cities its size that does not own it waterworks because political leaders and government shrank from the challenge. A century and a quarter later, we're paying more than necessary for a less than optimum plan for the same reason.

In celebration of 125 years of operation, Kentucky American Water will host an open house and tours of its Richmond Road water treatment plant, Lexington's original facility, today, July 27, from 5:30 to 8 p.m. at 2300 Richmond Road. The free event will include educational booths, treatment plant tours, children's activities and refreshments.