Faced with federal mandates to spend billions of dollars fixing sewers, a handful of major U.S. cities are pushing back against federal and state environmental regulators — and starting to see results.
For Omaha, which expects to spend $2 billion for its own sewer overhaul, the emerging movement could lead to big savings down the pipe.
Indianapolis became the first major city to successfully revamp its plans and renegotiate its agreement, a move officials say will shave $740 million off a price tag that was ballooning toward $4 billion.
Atlanta, which has already raised utility rates by more than 250 percent in a decade, seems close to getting a 13-year extension to finish its work.
And in Pittsburgh, an area sewer utility is telling the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that it needs to scale back its $3.6 billion plan to something more manageable.
Omaha officials say they recognize that renegotiating is a possibility in the future, although they have no current plans to ask for a revised deal.
With crews digging up streets and customers seeing their sewer bills rise, Omaha's project is well under way, but the city says its plans and the price tag are not set in concrete.
Mayor Jim Suttle has spoken frequently — including in his first press conference after suffering a stroke — about his interest in taking a $442 million chunk out of the city's bill by dropping a 5.4-mile sewer tunnel to run along the Missouri River. The mayor says he's confident the city can find a better, cheaper alternative, though it's not clear what that would be.
“We have always maintained that the plan the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality approved … is unlikely to be a road map of exactly what we can do,” said Marty Grate, the city's environmental services manager.
The environmental regulations that have sent cities across the country into a sewer planning and budgeting tailspin aren't new. They relate to the 1972 Clean Water Act passed by Congress and were made official with a policy published by the EPA in 1994.
But in many cases, it wasn't until recent years — when the EPA began issuing penalties — that cities began pulling together their plans and calculating the bills. Each must come up with a strategy to separate storm sewers and waste sewers that would meet clean water targets, get approval from federal and state agencies, and sign agreements to complete the work within a set time period.
Some quickly discovered that the financial burden was too great to bear.
In 2006, Indianapolis devised a plan to spend about $3.5 billion to get its sewage-dumping problem under control by 2025. But after running more calculations, city officials realized the cost was growing, and residential rates would have to jump to more than $100 per month to make up the difference.
David Sherman, then public works director for Indianapolis and now a consultant for the city, said more engineering studies led to big changes in the plan, including adding a large, deep tunnel that would collect more waste at a faster rate than a shallower tunnel the city initially sketched out.
It turned more to “green” solutions — rain gardens and green roofs that could capture rainwater. And newer studies revealed that storm water wasn't flowing as heavily into the sewer system as the city had estimated, meaning it needed to do less work.
That scaled back the cost to $3.1 billion, without adding more time, and won the approval of regulators.
“We were one of the first to actually negotiate — and pick up more sewage earlier and quicker,” Sherman said.
What it takes to win a new agreement isn't clear. The EPA, in a statement, said that it “does under certain conditions modify the terms of federal consent decrees based on new information that can improve the remedies.”
Now others are trying to follow Indianapolis' path.
Atlanta, which has been chipping away at its sewage overflow problem for more than a decade, told the EPA it can't ask its residents for much more. Already, the city has raised rates by 252 percent in 10 years and added a 1 percent sales tax. By this spring, Atlanta had spent $1.64 billion on storm sewer overflow projects, according to a report in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The deadline for the work is 2014, but the city asked for another 13 years. The EPA and Georgia environmental regulators have agreed to the request, and now the matter is before a federal judge, according to a city spokeswoman. Indianapolis' changes also had to be approved by a federal court.
In Pennsylvania, the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority, which provides water treatment services to Pittsburgh and more than 80 other nearby communities, is asking for something bigger: lower environmental standards.
Nancy Barylak, a spokeswoman for the authority, said the agreed-upon plan will cost $3.6 billion. That, she said, is far too high for a large number of the 320,000 customers who are expected to foot the bill. The area has one of the country's highest rates of retirees, and several of the communities that the authority covers are considered economically distressed, Barylak said.
Now, the group is suggesting a plan that would do $2 billion worth of work within the same time frame.
“We're not adverse to doing any work and not adverse to raising rates,” Barylak said. “It's just because of the economy, the senior citizen population, this would be a major hit.”
It's not clear how things will settle out in Pittsburgh. Barylak said she's heard rumbles of regulators being open to the plan, but there's been no official comment one way or the other.
In Omaha, Grate said officials are paying attention to other cities' efforts and watching for any creative solutions that seem particularly promising. Already, he said, the city has struck one important deal: getting a three-year extension on the deadline because of time lost during last year's flooding.
A request to further extend the timeline or otherwise alter the city's agreement probably won't come until after officials have mapped out the next sewer rate cycle for the project, Grate said. Currently, rates are set through 2014. That rate-setting process is happening over the next six months or so.
Steve Goans, environmental section supervisor with the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality, said the city has opportunities to revisit its plans when it re-applies for permits every five years. The current permits will expire in 2015.
“Our main goal is to meet the terms of the federal requirements,” he said.
For now, a handful of research projects, some funded with grants, are under way to determine whether the city can save more on green projects, as happened in Indianapolis.
Grate said that could end up having a big impact on the overall cost. Changes to the plan for improvements around Spring Lake Park, for example, have already saved the city about $6 million.
“We're hopefully going to find some things that work better than we expected,” Grate said.
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