By Rebekah Martin
Dan Hilyer, manager of Opelika Utilities, was the guest speaker at last Thursday’s Opelika Kiwanis Club meeting. Hilyer spoke about the history of the facility he manages and the current state of Opelika’s water sources.
Opelika has two sources of water, Saugahatchee Lake, which is owned by the utility board, and Lake Harding. With a demand of 5-7 million gallons per day, Hilyer said the two lakes provide more than enough water for Opelika citizens.
Hilyer said Opelika has a solid source of water because of the foresight of former Opelika Utilities board members and city leaders. “The citizens of Opelika have been very fortunate that the folks that have been running that organization since 1948 have been very forward-thinking,” Hilyer said. “I see a lot of cities around the country that have not gotten out in front of our issues in the industry and have not gotten out and found new sources of water. Opelika’s been very fortunate that all our board members and managers prior to me have made sure that Opelika has an abundant source of water.”
Hilyer said board members and city leaders made the difficult decision to spend $35 million to construct the Robert A. Betts Treatment Facility in the 80s on Lake Harding, and that the decision has especially paid off this summer during the drought. “ I think the biggest decision that Opelika has ever made was when they went out to Lake Harding and built a treatment facility and acquired a source of water out there,” Hilyer said. “That was a very critical decision. In our business, you have to make those decisions. You can’t decide you need it and get it tomorrow. If you have a source of water, getting a facility is a 10-year ordeal at best. If you need a source of water … that can be a 20-30 year ordeal. We’ve been fortunate that we have had good civic leaders in Opelika that have the foresight to make really difficult decisions that really pay off for future generations.”
While the drought has impacted Opelika, Hilyer said the situation is not dire, even though the recent demand has increased by 30 percent. “The drought has impacted us … Saugahatchee Lake is down about nine feet. Lake Harding is typically not severely impacted by droughts, at least the droughts that I’ve been a part of,” Hilyer said. “That source of water, Lake Harding, is very secure in my opinion.”
With cities around Opelika instituting certain water restrictions, Hilyer assured the Kiwanis Club that his team is keeping an eye on the drought and the effects it could have. “We are monitoring the drought. We don’t have any type of water restrictions right now, we don’t foresee any coming.”
Opelika Utilities currently sells water to Auburn, Beauregard, Beulah and Loachapoka, and while the drought has not affected those standing contracts, Hilyer said Opelika Utilities has placed a temporary restriction on selling excess water. “Auburn was buying about a million and half gallons a day over what their contract allowed … but it got to a point where we couldn’t support that demand without further impacting Saugahatchee Lake,” Hilyer said. “We had to tell them ‘we’ll sell you what’s on your contract, that’s not a problem, but we’re not going to sell you more until we are more comfortable with the lake level out at Saugahatchee.”
Certain water-saving programs may be on the horizon for Opelika if the drought continues, but Hilyer said they would be voluntary. “If the drought continues we will probably institute some type of voluntary stuff, just to be good stewards of our water. It is the most precious natural resource we have and we want to be good stewards of that.”