Problems that flow downhill

Problems that flow downhill

December 11th, 2012 in Opinion Times

Mayor Ron Littlefield's proposal to establish a multi-jurisdictional governmental authority to manage the handling of local stormwater runoff, wastewater and sewage treatment, and possibly water utilities, makes good sense. But it will be a tough undertaking - never mind the federal and state water quality mandates and the multimillion-dollar consent decrees signed to meet them.

As always, it's far easier for local water utility chiefs to mask their self-serving interests by criticizing the idea of consolidating anything, than it is for them to consider the larger public interest of merging dozens of duplicative management and utility offices, or of sensibly consolidating water-supply with water-return systems when these companies dig up streets and lay pipelines.

There are two compelling reasons to consider creating a larger water and wastewater treatment authority to expand the reach and multifunctional use of the current Hamilton County Water and Wastewater Treatment Authority, which itself is just beginning to act like a bona fide countywide organization.

One reason is that the Moccasin Bend sewage treatment system was built largely with federal money decades ago to treat the sewage and wastewater needs of this community's section of the Tennessee River's watershed. Thus the Moccasin Bend plant serves not just Hamilton County, but also much of Dade, Walker and Catoosa counties in North Georgia. The other main reason for consolidation of water quality work is that it's the best way to provide the biggest bang for the buck in total water quality for everyone who lives in our watershed jurisdiction.

The geophysical, topographical logic of this multicounty, interstate arrangement is irrefutable. It boils down to the plumbers' rule of physics: Water and sewage flow downhill. As Chattanooga's mayor and the Moccasin Bend plant's engineers say, "We're at the bottom of the bowl, and everything flows to us."

Doubters can find proof of this natural law by tracing the Cumberland Plateau's old coal-mining residue and Signal Mountain's septic tank leakage of E. coli bacteria into Short, Bee, Middle, Rainbow and Shoal creeks straight down to the Tennessee River. That top-down water flow, sewage bacteria and all, is why the town of Signal Mountain is under a moratorium on new septic tank systems and off-sewer-line hook-ups.

Rossville, Fort Oglethorpe, Chickamauga, Ringgold, Lookout Mountain, Ga., and other North Georgia communities could run the same check on creeks out of their communities: They all flow into the Tennessee River here. And their sewage systems all flow into the Moccasin Bend sewage treatment plant, even though they lie outside the jurisdiction of the Hamilton County WWTA.

Lying inside, and now subscribing to the WWTA for services, are all of the nine municipalities outside Chattanooga, except Walden, a tiny but large-lot bedroom community beyond the town of Signal Mountain which only has septic tanks. The eight existing Hamilton County towns using the WWTA services include East Ridge, Red Bank, Soddy-Daisy, Collegedale, Ridgeside, Lakesite, Signal Mountain and Lookout Mountain, Tenn.

Consolidation in our watershed of management, control and remediation of sewage, wastewater and stormwater runoff under a broader authority than Hamilton County's WWTA makes sense because of logistics, cost-control and efficient planning and use of resources. Piecemeal control of all the work that now needs to be done just doesn't make sense anymore, especially with the sensible regulatory push to clean sewage and pollution out of the nation's water supplies and the rivers that provide it.

Separation of the watershed's stormwater and sewage mitigation and treatment plans, as it is now, is akin to having a heart problem that stems from the tips of the body's arteries, yet having a different doctor for every limb, and a few more for the fingers, toes and nose. Doing patchwork, uncoordinated fixes on the myriad outdated and leaky "lateral lines" - the deteriorating clay-and-concrete lines across a homeowner's property to hookup to the public sewer mains in the streets - isn't efficient enough to solve the major cumulative problems that create the choke-points in the big lines that cause backups and "SSOs" - sanitary sewer overflows - in major rain deluges.

To produce the best water quality for all in our watershed section of the Tennessee River dictates that fixing the biggest problems causing the SSOs becomes the focus. Beside that focus would be a planned approach to identify and fix - on a worst-comes-first basis - the networks of lateral lines that also need to be repaired or replaced.

And because water-supply utilities have to dig for water lines that run to the same buildings that require water-return systems, these utilities need to be consolidated, as well. In decades to come, this sort of urban infrastructure logic won't be controversial. And it would not be controversial now if the well-paid managers who control all the for-profit water companies here - there are nearly a dozen - weren't looking out for their paychecks first, never mind the public interest in management and cost efficiency.