WASHINGTON — Economic woes make it unreasonable for businesses and everyday citizens to support big spending hikes to improve sewer systems, Omaha Mayor Jim Suttle said Thursday during a panel discussion at the National Press Club.
“We need to face this affordability question straight on,” Suttle said. “If we don't, we're going to have a rebellion. It's already starting in my community.”
Omaha is in the middle of a long-term, $1.7 billion overhaul of its sewer system at the behest of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The central problem is that a decent rainstorm can overwhelm Omaha's combined storm and wastewater sewers, sending raw sewage into local waterways.
Solutions for stopping the overflows are expensive, however, and will mean hefty increases in sewer fee rates year after year. Already, some area businesses have complained about increased fees, and Suttle predicted that average households will be speaking out more as they feel the financial pain.
Suttle spoke alongside several other mayors. The U.S. Conference of Mayors organized the event to highlight the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act. The mayors said the anniversary offered a good opportunity to reflect on progress made over the decades on clean water, but also to hit the pause button and look for better ways to tackle remaining problems.
Among their suggestions: better accounting of both the cumulative cost of federal water mandates and public benefits, a congressionally mandated cap on overall water compliance cost, and more flexibility for cities.
The EPA responded to the mayors with its own statement.
“No American wants raw sewage or other harmful pollution flowing through the waterways in their communities,” according to the statement. “EPA has worked closely with many local governments to identify innovative and cost-effective solutions to these issues, including additional use of green infrastructure, that acknowledges the budgetary challenges they face while ensuring that every community's water is clean and safe.”
After the panel discussion, Suttle headed to a meeting with several EPA officials and a representative from the White House. He said he hoped the meeting would lay the foundation for changes to Omaha's current sewer plan.
Suttle described the changes as “enhancements” that would include taking monthly measurements of Missouri River water quality upstream and downstream from Omaha and researching new technologies — preferably with the support of EPA grants.
A chief goal of those enhancements is finding a way to eliminate the need for a large “deep rock tunnel.” During downpours, that tunnel would be used to hold onto sewage that could be pumped to a treatment facility once the rain stops.
Suttle said eliminating the tunnel would lower the cost of the project to about $1 billion flat, an amount he hopes to split with Congress.
“We can manage $500 million,” Suttle said. “We cannot manage $1.7 billion.”
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