Who will take lead on water supply?

Water, the high cost of a new treatment plant and the city's future relationship with Kentucky American Water are all valid issues as Lexington elects a mayor and council, and there will plenty of time to talk about them before Nov. 2.

The more important question, though, is how to avoid repeating the flawed process that led to Lexington residents and businesses being saddled with a huge bill for at best a short-term solution.

In other words, how to remove a private, for-profit business that answers to a corporate headquarters in New Jersey from the driver's seat in water-supply planning for the Bluegrass? And (here's the rub) who will take the wheel?

Neither of the state agencies that should be leading water-supply planning — the Kentucky River Authority and Division of Water — see themselves as having the authority or responsibility.

Kentucky American Water will remain in the driver's seat, through default, until elected leaders — from the governor down — demand more and give the agencies the support to fulfill their missions.

Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd drove home this point in a recent opinion upholding the Public Service Commission's approval of Kentucky American's new treatment plant on the Kentucky River in Owen County and 31-mile pipeline to Lexington. The water company's request for a 38-percent rate increase to help pay for the $162 million project will be the subject of a PSC hearing Tuesday in Frankfort.

"Without question," Shepherd wrote, "the issues of conservation, demand management and the long-term water supply deficit in the Kentucky River Basin all continue to require a better long-term solution...

"Without strong and effective leadership" from the governor, the KRA, the environmental secretary, Division of Water and the many affected local governments, "it will be impossible to develop and implement long-term solutions ... in a cost-efficient, environmentally sound manner. ... So long as the responsible public officials fail to take action, the options will be limited to those that advance the economic interest of private corporations such as KAW, rather than the public interest in conservation, cost efficiency and environmental protection," Shepherd wrote.

It's entirely possible that in 15 years Kentucky American will have sold all the excess water from its new plant to customers outside Lexington and be ready to sock ratepayers with another huge investment in infrastructure, such as a raw water pipeline to the Ohio River.

Meanwhile, nothing will have been done to protect or augment our main water source, the Kentucky River. (We're not talking about drowning the Palisades, just adding the infrastructure to raise the summer pools during droughts to normal rainfall levels.)

Not just Lexington, but cities and towns up and down the Kentucky depend on the river for water — while the river desperately needs some political champions.