Tonawanda News

August 10, 2010

Sewer upgrades coming at expensive price

By David J. Hill
The Tonawanda News

TOWN OF TONAWANDA — During an exchange with a resident at a recent meeting, City of Tonawanda Common Council President Carl Zeisz sounded a warning, telling those in attendance that the days of the cheap sewer bill are over.

“We have major sewer issues — not just in the city, all across the northeast,” Zeisz said.

He continued, “We’re talking serious dollars that this community is going to have to fork out right away — not 10 years, not 20 years — right away. I’m sure everybody’s kind of used to sewer bills in the $200-$300 range. Well those days are over. And I’m not talking about a hundred dollars a month.”

It’s an issue cities and towns across the nation are beginning to face as federal mandates are forcing communities to upgrade pipes and other aging infrastructure to reduce or, in many cases, eliminate sanitary sewer overflows, commonly referred to as SSOs. And many communities will have to make those improvements with little or no financial help.

Such overflows typically occur during severe weather, when rain or snow melt seeps into the sanitary sewer system through cracks, overwhelming the system.

“The untreated sewage from these overflows can contaminate our waters, causing serious water quality problems. It can also back-up into basements, causing property damage and threatening public health,” according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which reports there are an estimated 40,000 SSOs each year.

In order to upgrade their sewer systems, municipalities across the country are getting socked in varying degrees, depending on their size. For example, Atlanta is projecting to spend $1.2 billion over the next 12 years to upgrade more than 2,000 miles of sanitary sewers. “Some of the numbers I’ve seen are astronomical,” said City of Tonawanda Engineer Jason LaMonaco.

Closer to home, the Town of Tonawanda will spend more than $200 million to upgrade its system. In March 2005, town leaders submitted to the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the EPA a plan on how the town would reduce its overflows and detailed a number of projects that would occur over 40 years to achieve that goal. The initial price tag was $224 million, but that was five years ago, meaning the full scope of the project is likely much higher now.

Work has already begun on the Parker-Fries Sewer Project, the town’s largest construction project in more than three decades.

The two-year Parker-Fries project comes with a price tag of $26 million, and it’s just the first of several construction phases the town anticipates undergoing over the next few decades.

“The (sanitary sewer overflow) issue is a concern, and it is one of the reasons we went ahead with the Parker-Fries Project,” said Water Resources Director Ken Maving.

Maving said 33 sanitary sewer overflows — or one-third of all SSOs in the town — can be attributed to the Parker-Fries line, largely because of the age of the system, which services the eastern portion of the town.

Its age was another reason the town board chose to move forward with the Parker-Fries project, even though the DEC hasn’t yet approved the town’s overflow abatement plan. The foresight has paid off, however, in the form of several million dollars in grant money the town has received for the project, Maving said. “We’re doing a line that needed to be done, but it’s the first step in this plan to reduce our overflows,” he said.

The City of Tonawanda soon will have its own sewer work to do. The city is currently one of 19 municipalities in DEC Region 9 under a consent order to reduce its overflows. “It’s like a legally binding order that comes down from the state that says this is what you will do. The current one says to eliminate SSOs completely,” LaMonaco, the city engineer, said.

The city started the process of assessing its system with some testing last fall and spring. City officials then submitted a work order to the DEC. That plan said the city would tackle its sewer upgrade in a 10-phase, 20-year plan. The DEC rejected it, ordering the city to address its infrastructure over a 10-year period.

“It’s a very aggressive schedule, there’s no doubt about it,” LaMonaco said, adding that the plan calls for dividing the city into a number of smaller areas that’ll be targeted over the course of the project.

The city’s sewer system varies in age, with some pipes installed nearly a century ago. The newest ones were put in 25 years ago.

Each year will require three phases of work, beginning with an investigation phase to determine the condition of the sewer system in that area, then a design phase and, finally, a construction phase to repair or replace broken pipes.

“We’re just starting to get into the investigation phase, so we don’t know what our costs will be yet. It’s not an exact science by any means,” LaMonaco said. But, he added, “No doubt, there’ll be an impact to sewer rates.”

While it’s unknown just how much those rates will be affected, the fact of the matter is, taxpayers across the area can expect to shell out more money when they pay their sewer bill.

It was a point Zeisz, the Common Council president, tried to make clear a few weeks ago.

“I don’t think that everyone fully comprehends the amount of expenses that the city currently has and the amount of expenses that are coming, and it’s not going to be pretty,” he said.