Ohio Mayor: CSO Program is ?Biggest Unfunded Mandate I?ve Ever Seen?

In Springfield, Ohio, the total price tag for a federally mandated project to cut down on raw sewage flowing into local waterways could more than double earlier estimates and might now cost as high as $243 million.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) required the City of Springfield to draft a long-term control plan in 2004 to significantly reduce the amount of stormwater overflowing from older sewers and sending untreated wastewater into nearby creeks and rivers. Early estimates put the total cost at about $100 million about seven years ago, then about $160 million more recently.

The city will do a geotechnical investigation this summer to determine if it will build an underground tunnel to capture stormwater flowing into Buck Creek. The tunnel could drive the total costs up to $243 million.

According to Mayor Warren Copeland, the projects place the burden on local taxpayers, especially those who live in older cities with older combined sewers. ?This is the biggest, hugest unfunded mandate that I?ve ever seen in the time I?ve been in public life,? Copeland said. ?Basically, the EPA at the federal level is prepared to tell us that we have to keep spending money and there?s no help from the feds to deal with it. It?s just a disaster from my point of view. There doesn?t seem to be any way out of it.?

The Clean Water Act of 1972 is seeking to make streams ?fishable and swimmable,? according to Ohio EPA spokeswoman Heather Lauer. In the 1980s, communities were tasked with treating bacteria, and the cleaner water lead to a large increase in fish populations, says Lauer. ?By eliminating combined sewer overflows, we?re further taking bacteria out of the environment, so we?re one step closer to swimmable and fishable streams,? she says.

The U.S. EPA doesn?t provide grant money to communities for combined sewers but it provides flexibility through a revolving loan fund. Its policies are intended to protect bodies of water across the country, the statement says. ?When (overflows) occur, raw sewage can be discharged into local waters and into people?s basements,? the statement says. ?Raw sewage contains pathogens and other pollutants that threaten public health, and can lead to beach closures or public advisories against fishing and swimming.?

Better Water, High Cost

Springfield is currently in the first of five phases for its long-term control plan. The first part includes about $70 million in projects, such as upgrades to the Wastewater Treatment Plant at 925 Dayton Ave. and construction of the Erie Interceptor Express sewer project. The express sewer will send sewage directly to the plant from a sewer near Ohio 41 and Bechtle Avenue.

The more the overflows are reduced, the better quality the stream flow will be at Buck Creek, said Wittenberg University Professor John Ritter. ?It?s obvious after storms what impact that has on the stream, relative to bacteria levels and some sediment pollution,? Ritter said. ?By removing it or reducing it to zero, it?s a huge improvement in water quality in the stream.?

The entire project will likely be done in approximately 2035. More than 2 percent of the average resident?s income could be used to fund the sewer project over the 25-year implementation schedule, according to the long-term control plan.

?To me, that?s huge,? Copeland said. ?I just can?t imagine that people would have to pay 2 percent of their income, but they say anything short of that, we can?t complain on the basis of costs. To me, if the feds are going to require this type of thing, they really need to provide some assistance.?

The geotechnical investigation will cost about $398,000 for a consultant to determine whether it?s feasible to either build a tunnel to store sewage during severe storms or a satellite facility called a high-rate treatment clarifier that also catches overflow. A similar clarifier is under construction now at at the Wastewater Treatment Plant, a nearly $50 million project.

Several other cities in Ohio are constructing tunnels for sewer overflows, including Columbus, Cincinnati and Akron.

?(The study) lets us know the feasibility of a tunnel,? Springfield Service Director Chris Moore said. ?We think it is feasible, but this helps make that more concrete. It will also help narrow down the cost. Right now, the long-term control plan has a pretty large contingency for the tunnel. It won?t get it down to a solid number, but it lessens that contingency significantly.?

The cost of the projects will be passed onto taxpayers through increased sewer and stormwater rates.

Utility Bill Increases

The city recently spread three 4 percent increases in sewer rates across the past three years, with the last increase on Jan. 1, 2014. The money will be used to pay for the clarifier at the treatment plant and the Erie Express Sewer, which is expected to begin construction next year.

With the recent increases, Springfield?s average combined water and sewer rate of about $168 for a three-month period are the seventh-lowest in the area, according to a study performed last year by the city of Oakwood. Union has the lowest costs with about $132 for three months, while Troy is the highest at more than $418. The tunnel could be anywhere from 16 to 23 ft in diameter to hold sewage from three different sewers that can overflow into Buck Creek.

?To imagine, basically, building the equivalent of a coal mine in Springfield in order to run sewer water into it just blows my mind,? Copeland said. ?I guess this is something they?ve forced other communities into. The alternative is building an entirely new separated sewer system and I guess this is cheaper, but my gosh, it?s so expensive.?

The length and location of the tunnel are yet to be determined. A tunnel would help with both moving and storing the sewage and keep it from going into Buck Creek, Moore said.

?It?s basically a reservoir beneath the existing sewer,? he said. ?The sewer will dump into the tunnel. When the plant can handle the processing of that waste, then it will be pumped from the tunnel into the treatment plant.?

The city will use data from the high-rate treatment clarifier and the upcoming geotechnical study to get a better idea of what it takes to build a tunnel, Moore said. ?Right now, everything that we?re discussing is conceptual.?

The study won?t be complete until August 2015 but a report is due to the EPA by the end of this year. The contractor will place 14 borings throughout the city, starting at the Wastewater Treatment Plant and heading toward Snyder Park then following Buck Creek to the city Service Center. The investigation will test the groundwater?s pressure, as well as the hardness of the rock about 100 feet underground in each location.

Green Alternatives

The goal of the project is to limit the overflows to about four per year. The city currently sees 50 to 60 overflows per year, but some are more severe than others, depending on the rain. If one pipe overflows during a storm, it counts as one overflow.

John Loftis, who spearheaded the Ecosports Corridor whitewater project on Buck Creek near Snyder Park, said the project is important to keep the water clean. Most kayakers know that each waterway is going to have some form of contamination, he said.

Cleaner waterways will help public opinion of the corridor in the future, Loftis said. The EPA and the Springfield Conservancy District have posted signs on the creek about potential contamination after large rain events.

?Some people follow those and some people don?t,? Loftis said. ?Personally, I boat in the creek all the time. But after large rain events, I wait 24 hours and let that initial flush run through the system.?

The city is also using different green infrastructure projects ? including the possibility of turning vacant lots into rain gardens ? to reduce stormwater flowing into sewers. The EPA is open to discussing different ways to use green alternatives as part of the overall sewer projects, Moore said.

?If we start to see that some of the green initiatives are cutting down on the amount of stormwater entering the sewers, it can change the scope and scale of a lot of these projects,? he said. ?There?s plenty of capacity, there?s just not a lot of capacity at that moment in time (during large events).?

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