Strong sewer system plans needed for an efficient, green future

Strong sewer system plans needed for an efficient, green future

May 24th, 2012 in Opinion Times

Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield

Photo by Jake Daniels/Times Free Press.

By their decision Tuesday to effectively shut down the city's Office of Sustainability, it now seems obvious that city officials are willing to embark on an annual series of steep fee increases over the next decade for sewer system improvements and needless construction of more aquarium-sized, underground storm-water run-off containment tanks. This myopia will put the city on the wrong path, both fiscally and in terms of public value for the tax dollars they will spend.

Huge fee increases for below-ground infrastructure costing hundreds of millions of dollars will provide no other public value. Yet the cost of this subterranean concrete infrastructure will generate unmitigated public anger and needless controversy. It also will sap the city's ability to make other prudent investments in the city's above-ground infrastructure for civic improvements, job growth and quality of life.

Still time to change

City Council members aren't quite there yet, because they haven't yet received the bill for the legal consent decree that the city soon must sign with state and federal environmental agencies. It is that decree that will dictate the schedule for the massive sewer system and storm-water retention work that lies ahead if city officials stick with their current course.

Until they make that commitment, city officials still have time to chart a different path to storm-water containment. Their option is to adopt a dispersed, above-ground green system. It would be far cheaper and more energy-efficient, and it would, at the same time, provide community-wide above-ground benefits in public green spaces, quality of life and more cohesive neighborhoods.

Unfortunately, the City Council's decision Tuesday to approve Mayor Ron Littlefield's plan to abandon the Office of Sustainability -- and most of the team that director David Crockett has built to create the data-base to foster a green system -- suggests that city officials do not yet realize the stakes.

City Council Chairperson Pam Ladd, for example, said she questioned even leaving the $100,000 that the mayor suggested to merge the remnant COS functions into the Regional Planning Agency. "Everything is suspect for me," she said.

A smarter path

That's lamentable. The green infrastructure approach is imminently more wise. It would generate hundreds of jobs, and make the city more beautiful for residents and more attractive to higher-level businesses. It would vastly reduce the city's energy utility costs and its summer asphalt heat-island temperature, and it would significantly reduce the city's sewer/storm-water detention costs.

If the cost in other cities of continuing to build below-ground, aquarium-size storm-water holding tanks (Chattanooga has more than a dozen) and feeder pipe-line systems is a fair measure, the city's bill in the next few years will easily run upwards of several hundred million dollars, all for a system that has no other above-ground public benefit.

Nashville, for example, plans to spend $500 million in the next five years on sewer and water system improvements, and $10 million a year on capital projects to contain its storm-water run-off.

Other cities examples

Philadelphia is keeping the bill for its storm-water/sewer improvement consent decree with the EPA to $2 billion by using a closely monitored green system. That's a fraction of the $13 billion Philadelphia officials figured they otherwise would have to spend to expand their under-ground tank system for storm-water detention and related sewer improvements.

Milwaukee officials say they are achieving a similar ratio of cost savings by switching to an above-ground green system. Louisville, Kentucky, and Cincinnati, Ohio, are on a similar path.

Chattanooga and other municipalities here, like other cities around the country, are having to undertake spending for better storm-water and sewage management systems because long-neglected Clean Water Act standards are finally being enforced around the country. That's a welcome, if costly, commitment for public health and environmental protection.

It will keep sewage and common pollution from storm-water run-off -- i.e., oil from parking lots and roads, industrial and lawn chemicals -- from flowing into the watersheds, rivers and aquifers. That will protect our supplies of drinking water and our aquatic ecosystems.

The green model's elements

The green system the city's Office of Sustainability has been planning follows the model that other cities have embraced to lower cost and produce higher, multiple public benefits. The model calls for broad focus on the lower life-cycle costs of on-site detention of storm-water run-off through a combination of green roofs and on-site water detention ponds and cisterns; pervious parking lots and sidewalks to allow natural absorption of water; green, wide, shallow gutters and swales, or earth berms, in place of hard curbs, narrow gutters and drain pipes; and creation of parks and public spaces on vacant or under-used land that serve doubly as wetlands in heavy rains.

All these methods would have to be undertaken on a broad scale, and over time, in both commercial and residential areas. They would go hand-in-hand with phased separation of currently combined sanitary-and-storm-water sewer lines. That would relieve the volume of sewage that would require treatment at the Moccasin Bend sewer plant, reducing the frequent spillage during storm-water overflows of lightly treated or raw sewage into the Tennessee River. The green plan also calls for converting sanitized sewage plant waste into energy production.

If City Council members have trouble envisioning the public value of the green model, it's because they haven't taken the time to study the rapid emergence of sustainable cities that put Chattanooga in the shade, and the companies that now seek to partner with them in job creation in green industrial parks that turn detention ponds into lakes and wetlands laced with natural greenways for their employees and other citizens to enjoy.

Milwaukee provides a great model of the latter, one that has generated 5,000 new jobs and revitalized an abandoned industrial zone. It's the path to a more sustainable future. It's time Chattanooga's leaders got on board.