A record $68.5 million in sewer infrastructure projects are now in the Hamilton County Water & Wastewater Treatment Authority's pipeline and consumers are likely to pay higher fees for the work.
"We anticipate significant rate increases to cover the cost of the projects along with the cost of the loans to complete the work," said WWTA Chairman Dick Gee on Wednesday.
With a consent degree with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency looming, the sewer authority is trying to schedule projects to settle regulatory requirements, said Mike Patrick, the WWTA's executive director.
The WWTA is negotiating the terms of the consent decree with EPA after years of Clean Water Act violations and millions of gallons of sewage spilled into local creeks and streams.
"The main goal of these projects is to eliminate sanitary sewer overflows by increasing the capacity and reliability of the sewer system," Patrick said, adding that future growth in the county is a secondary benefit of the work.
He said there will be annual rate increases moving forward at a level to be determined each year depending on the proposed project schedules.
Gee said rates are under study and more will be known on the effect on ratepayers in coming days.
"One thing we know for certain is that this is just the beginning of the work to be done," he said.
In Chattanooga, rates have risen nearly 10% a year since 2012 to pay for the city's own Clean Water Act fix. The average 5,000-gallon user in the city saw rates rise from $25.10 a month in 2011 to around $50.
The WWTA, which serves most of Hamilton County outside of the city of Chattanooga, is a separate entity from the city's sewer system and sets its own sewer rates.
In December 2018, Hamilton County commissioners denied a special permit for a new WWTA treatment plant on Mahan Gap Road after residents in the area complained.
Gee said WWTA has a robust list of critical projects which span the entire county.
"Each is vital in our continued efforts to keep our sewer infrastructure as efficient and effective as possible," he said. "However, the investment that will be required by the ratepayers of Hamilton County isn't one to be taken lightly."
WWTA said it's planning and investing in more than 20 sewer infrastructure projects across the county. Among those are:
* Ooltewah area residents will see the most activity in the county with seven projects, including new force mains and upgrades on Lee Highway and Mountain View Road along with rehabilitation efforts and upgrading of the Roy Lane and Green Gap Pump Stations.
The Short Tail Springs Pump Station will be upgraded and the Georgetown Bay Pump Station will also be rehabilitated with system upgrades including two new pumps and a control panel. The projects in Ooltewah will result in about $12 million in system improvements, according to the authority.
* In East Ridge, there's about $20 million for projects in conjunction with Interstate-75 construction as well as rehabilitation in multiple sewer basins to relieve inflow and infiltration. East Ridge has five projects underway, WWTA said.
* Work in Red Bank continues to increase system capacity and remove rainwater inflow and infiltration between Midvale Avenue and Memorial Drive and other service areas. Over the next 5 years, the investment in Red Bank is more than $12 million, according to WWTA.
Tyler Howell, WWTA's board secretary and a Red Bank city commissioner, said that with new residents and businesses moving there, investing in infrastructure is key.
"Our city and county have great legacies and tremendous potential and this ongoing work is an investment in both," he said. "The money directly impacts our citizens — healthier land and water, better maintained roads, and higher property values. That's what we want."
* The Signal Mountain Wastewater Treatment Plant will receive a system upgrade along with an equalization station and force main. The project will require about a $15 million investment and is anticipated to be completed by 2025, the authority said.
* Lookout Mountain's project work began in 2017 with pump station rehabilitation at Fort Stephenson Road and West Brow Oval. Late last year, the WWTA began rehabbing the town's sewer collection system to relieve inflow and infiltration. The cost for those projects is $7 million, according to the authority.
* Soddy-Daisy will receive pump station rehabilitation and upgrades in 2021. The current estimate for the projects is about $2.5 million.
Patrick said the projects in the pipeline are just a portion of those WWTA will undertake over the next 15 to 20 years. They'll be paid for by WWTA ratepayers though a combination of existing reserves, bonds and state revolving fund loans, he said.
Patrick said while WWTA is negotiating with EPA, it appears they're closing in on an agreement. Once the consent decree is finalized, the WWTA will be legally obligated to perform the projects, he said.
Gee said there are ongoing talks with Chattanooga to find ways to collaborate and partner.
"The talks aren't merger talks," he said. "They've been very positive and productive for which we are grateful."
Contact Mike Pare at email@example.com or 423-757-6318. Follow him on Twitter @MikePareTFP.