Sewer action: Brown proposes help for CSO elimination

With Wapakoneta facing costly sewer upgrades, the Clean Water Affordability Act introduced Thursday by a U.S. legislator could provide some relief for the city and the city’s utility consumers.

A Wapakoneta administrator would support the measure if it provided such relief to the city which acted proactively and whose residents keep the city solvent.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown discussed the legislation, which he introduced in previous Congresses with former Republican U.S. Sen. George Voinovich, to assist communities to make renovations to outdated sewer systems, to improve water quality and to keep rates lower for residents and businesses.

“It is hard to attract and retain companies, particularly in manufacturing where Ohio is a real leader in the country, without being able to ensure a dependable and affordable source of water and, of course, Ohioans deserve access to clean water,” Brown said Thursday during a media teleconference. “Across Ohio, communities are struggling to afford the necessary upgrades to improve their sewer systems.”

Brown touts the bill as a way to help local governments make renovations to eliminate

combined sewer overflows (CSOs) by increasing the capacity to deal with combined sanitary and stormwater sewer systems or separating the two systems.

The U.S. legislator said the improvements also are an investment in the state’s long-term economic development.

“There are parts of the state with combined sewer overflows and every time there are heavy rains then waste and stormwater is dumped into a rivers, creeks and lakes,” Brown said. “The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that about 850 billion gallons of untreated wastewater and stormwater are released through CSOs every year into our waterways.    

“This is a threat to our public health and undermines the competitiveness of our businesses so the needs are great, but the fixing of CSOs is obviously not cheap,” he said.

Under the terms of Brown’s proposal, the Clean Water Affordability Act would update the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) clean water affordability policy. The current policy does not provide for a full and accurate representation of the financial impacts of clean water investment programs on communities struggling to meet federal regulations for improving their water infrastructure.

The legislation authorizes $1.8 billion for five years for a grant program to help financially distressed communities update their aging infrastructure. The program would provide a 75-25 cost share for municipalities to use for planning, design, and construction of treatment works to control combined and sanitary sewer overflows.

Wapakoneta Safety-Service Director Bill Rains said the legislation tends to be more advantageous to other communities than Wapakoneta because Wa-pakoneta is not in fiscal distress. Rains feels this penalizes municipalities that act responsibly.

The South Interceptor Sewer Project estimated to cost $30 million will require another $10 million to finance the project if the city secures a 3 percent interest rate. The city would fail to qualify for a zero percent interest rate under existing rules because it is not in financial distress and does not meet other eligibility requirements such as a low median income.

“We, as a community, should be entitled to a zero percent interest loan because all along we have done the right thing,” Rains told the Wapakoneta Daily News. “There are some city officials who believe we should receive a grant for 50 percent of the project and receive a zero interest loan for the remaining 50 percent. I would be very, very happy with a zero percent interest loan because we know that this is our issue to deal with and our council knows that there is a value to this project.

“We are willing to pay for this project and we have started to be proactive by setting aside money for the project and the community realizes this,” he said. “We did our education process for this project and they  (residents) understand the need to have clean water, to keep the Auglaize River pristine and to limit the combined sewer overflows.”

Greater Cincinnati Metropolitan Sewer District Executive Director Tony Parrott, discussed how Brown’s legislation would help a larger city such as Cincinnati.

“This bill also sets in place a mandated process for EPA to implement and allow communities the flexibility to re-open existing consent decrees based on the communities current economic condition and the local communities’ desire to use more innovative and sustainable solutions to address CSOs which in turn can bring value, community revitalization and job creation to urban communities,” Parrott said. “It is imperative that EPA shift the paradigm to become partners with local communities to facilitate the outcomes that are based on local priorities/needs and support solutions that will limit future liabilities on the overall environment and future generations.”

According to EPA, communities across the nation face an estimated $63 billion in need for CSO renovations. These projects represent more than 25 percent of all wastewater needs reported in the most recent EPA needs survey.

A 2008 EPA survey shows 83 Ohio communities with serious sewage overflow problems amounts to a needed investment of $7.5 billion over the next twenty years. The report calculated there is an immediate need of more than $10 billion in Ohio for improvements in publicly-owned wastewater treatment facilities.