Chattanooga leaders expect to conduct $513 million worth of improvements to the city's sewer infrastructure between 2020 and 2030, the second phase of an almost two-decade project intended to prevent wastewater from entering the Tennessee River.
In 2013, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reached an agreement with the city, officially known as a consent decree, because its sewer system was struggling to handle the billions of gallons of sewage flowing through its pipes every year. Overflows sent hundreds of thousands of gallons of raw waste into the Tennessee River on an annual basis.
The consent decree resulted from a settlement the city reached after it was sued by the EPA, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation and a nonprofit called the Tennessee Clean Water Network.
Phase one lasted from 2013-2020 and had a budget of $277 million. Members of the City Council heard an update on the final leg of the program during a meeting June 14, and on Tuesday, council members approved an up to five-year, $3.4 million contract with Jacobs Engineering to oversee implementation of the consent decree.
Ellis Smith, city director of special projects, said in a text Tuesday that the company's responsibilities will include managing the scope, schedule, budget and technical services necessary to carry out the large number of improvements to the city's aging stormwater and sewer infrastructure.
Jacobs Engineering is one of the largest full-spectrum engineering firms in the world, he added. It has managed the program since it started in 2013.
The 10-year initiative will consist of 65 individual projects and tasks, six of which are complete. Including fiscal years 2022 and 2023, the city has appropriated more than half of the $513 million phase two budget.
Tom Hutka, administrator of the city's Department of Public Works, told the council last week that the overarching goals of the repair program - which the city has branded Clear Chattanooga - include reducing inflow and infiltration.
That's when leaky pipes are inundated with enough rainwater to strain the operations of the wastewater treatment plant. The city is also rehabilitating pipelines and pump stations and increasing capacity at its treatment plant.
One of the largest projects in phase two is the construction of millions of gallons worth of above-ground wet weather storage in a few locations near the city and county border. That will give wastewater a place to go during a downpour rather than overflowing out of the system.
The $125 million cost of that will be partially funded with low-interest loans available through the EPA's Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act program. The city expects construction will begin next year and last through the winter of 2026.
City Engineer and Assistant Public Works Administrator Bill Payne said last week that the city has already seen tangible benefits from its investments. Over the past five years, he said, the volume of sanitary sewer overflows has decreased 82% even as rainfall increased 11% across the same time.
Payne said in an interview last week that the city's problems originated from a series of leaky pipes and manholes. When it would rain, groundwater would enter the pipes and hit a bottleneck, causing wastewater to overflow out of manholes and into streets or yards.
The city will increase its sewer fee by 6%, which will take effect Oct. 1. It will bring the average residential bill from $42.94 to $45.52. The bump is part of a series of rate hikes over the years that the city has conducted to help raise funds for the projects.
City officials expect funding will come from multiple sources, including low-interest loans available through the Clean Water State Revolving Fund and other EPA programs.