Locals seek federal help with sewer improvement costs
The cost of federally mandated sewer improvements is putting a squeeze on cities throughout the United States, where escalating infrastructure costs are making compliance difficult for utilities. But, officials in one northwest Ohio city hope a proposed federal law will bring some relief to their rising repair bills, which total in the millions.
The issue has reached a crisis point in Defiance, Ohio, says Mayor Bob Armstrong. In 2004, an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) mandate forced the city to begin separating its water and sewer lines. The mandates stem from the EPA’s 1994 Combined Sewer Overflow Policy, which calls for municipalities with combined sewer and stormwater collection systems — 843 utilities total — to develop plans to minimize sewage overflows to meet water quality standards, according to the agency. In 2000, Congress passed the Wet Weather Water Quality Act, which requires compliance with the 1994 policy.
Defiance began separating its systems in 2005, but since then, the costs to complete the upgrade have more than doubled because of inflation — from $50 million to $118 million. The city was given 20 years to complete the project and has already spent $30 million. “We don’t have the volume of users to be able to pay for a system like that,” Armstrong said. Of the city’s 16,500 residents, 6,600 are water and sewer users.
Armstrong is urging Washington to give his city and its neighboring communities relief from what he calls an unfunded mandate. He has thrown his support to a pending Senate bill known as the Clean Water Affordability Act (CWAA). If the bill becomes law, CWAA would update the EPA’s clean water affordability policy to provide grants to cash-strapped communities nationwide to make necessary repairs to their combined sewer systems.
“The affordability issue is particularly big for wastewater facilities nationwide. We’re happy to see Congress looking at the issue and addressing it,” says Julia Anastasio, director of sustainability for the Kansas City, Mo.-based American Public Works Association. But, because it is late in the session and the Senate already has passed a different bill, S. 1005, about clean water funding, CWAA probably would not make it to a vote, Anastasio said in early October. “[S. 1005] passed out of committee with strong bipartisan support,” she says. “At the time they passed [S. 1005], they didn’t include mention of [CWAA], nor did they attach language from it.” And, by the time the new session resumes in January, one of the bill’s sponsors, Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, will have retired, Anastasio says.
In Ohio, the grants could help 86 communities, including Defiance. Otherwise, Armstrong says the only way Defiance can complete its repairs will be to raise water and sewer bills, which already have increased from $32 to $100 a month on average and to $250 outside the city. Armstrong predicts that water and sewer rates in the city will rise 82 percent in five years. Meanwhile, the city is turning off water service at a record rate because residents are not paying their water bills. “We had 51 water shutoffs last week,” Armstrong said in a mid-September interview. “We have people using the YMCA for their showers because they don’t have any water at their homes.”