A sad sewer story: Why it takes money to clean up our mess

A sad sewer story: Why it takes money to clean up our mess

May 10th, 2014 in Opinion Times

Some Chattanooga residents are already fretting about a 10 percent sewer fee rate increase later this summer.

It will cost most residents a whopping $3 more a month, raising most home bills to about $35 monthly.

That means city residents will be paying about $1.16 a day instead of $1.06 a day to whoosh away all your toilet water and dirty bath water and every other form of liquid waste that you put down a drain somewhere in your house or on your property.

Frankly, it's not a lot of money to make your mess go away. You probably spend more on coffee -- even if you make your own. And, of course, you return that coffee to the magic hole in the ground we call a sewage treatment system that makes that coffee more or less fit to return to the Tennessee River that provides drinking water to all of us and millions more people along its 652-mile run to the Ohio River, then the Mississippi River, then the Gulf of Mexico.

And don't forget that this river also keeps the industries running that employ us. It also cools the coal and gas and nuclear plants that give us electricity. And it offers the water for plants that make and process our food, and supplies our local restaurants. Oh, and it carries away their waste, too -- after the city's and region's 1,250 miles of sewer lines and the 50-year-old Moccasin Bend Sewage Treatment Plant have worked their magic on the 60 or 70 million gallons of nastiness sent their way each day.

But think a moment about that "away" place where the mess goes. The truth is that there is no "away." There is treatment, but there is no "away."

That brings us back to the bill -- the $36 a month this year and another 10 percent increase the year after and still another projected 10 percent increase the year after that.

Through the years, some city officials have blamed the increases on a federal mandate from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Justice. It's true that in 2012 EPA and Chattanooga signed a $250 million consent decree because even with millions of dollars in city improvements over the years, our aging sewer system had dumped more than 354 million gallons of raw sewage into the Tennessee River since 2005.

Each overflow was a violation of law, but the $250 million consent decree wasn't a fine. Instead, the decree meant that Chattanooga had agreed to spend that much money fixing the sewage treatment and stormwater system. Some of the fix would be sewer line improvements, and some would be better engineering and green infrastructure -- today's buzzword for water-smart drainage that replaces the concrete ditches and sewer grates that line most city roads.

Chattanooga's Main Terrain park in the Southside is an example. We use it as a beautiful adult playground with a running track, cross-training equipment and interactive sculptures on what once was an abandoned railroad lot. But below the lush turf is a mix of topsoil, sand and gravel specially designed to filter stormwater runoff. After a heavy rain, two retention ponds in the park hang onto runoff for eight to 10 hours -- enough time to allow the nearby sewers to drain without overflow. Additionally, a system of drain tiles moves some of the rainwater to a nearby underground storage tank, where it ultimately serves as irrigation water for the park.

These are some improvements that your rising sewer bill -- which is still lower than Knoxville's $62 a month and Birmingham's $42 a month -- pays for.

But new or old, it takes money to treat and clean up our messes. Parts of Chattanooga's sewer system are 130 years old. Pipes crumble, heavy rain runs into the street gutters and floods the normally steady sewage running throughout the city and to Moccasin Bend Sewage Treatment Plant. When that happens, storm water mixes with sewage and overflows into creeks and woods and yards and the river. That's why, a few years ago, the city and state also raised sewer rates on businesses, extrapolating how much stormwater runoff moved from large roofs and expansive paved parking lots. New businesses have to design their properties to catch and hold the first inch of rainwater that falls in gutter gardens or parking gardens -- more green infrastructure. Old businesses get breaks on their sewer fees if they add such rain-catching features.

The goal is to keep pollution out of the river, because the more polluted the river, the higher the effort and cost of filtering the water so that it's safe enough to drink and use in our food-making and manufacturing efforts. And, no, dilution is not the solution to pollution.

If you have any doubt, imagine your uphill neighbors having no way to drain their mess so it backs up in their yards. Until a big rain when it flows down to your back door.

Now what's it worth to you for all that mess to go away?