After spending a record $23 million on sewer upgrades last year, Hamilton County's sewer authority is planning to spend nearly as much again this year to replace aging pipes and sewer connections for its 30,000 customers in much of the county outside of Chattanooga.
The upgrades are designed to help bring the county into compliance with federal water and sewer regulations. For now, Hamilton County Water & Wastewater Treatment Authority (WWTA) Director Michael Patrick said the agency remains focused on repairing and fixing existing lines and equipment, not extending sewer service into unserved areas to open up more development.
Patrick also said talk of a merger with the city of Chattanooga to resolve ongoing water and sewer problems is on the back burner, at least for the immediate future.
"We have over 20 projects across Hamilton County that are in various stages of development," Patrick said of WWTA's 2021 work plan which totals more than $22.5 million. "Our team is especially focused on projects that will assist in making upgrades and rehabilitation to assist us in meeting infrastructure needs."
For more than five years, WWTA officials have been negotiating with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Justice and the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation for a consent decree that will spell out what improvements the authority must make to comply with federal and state water quality regulations after years of Clean Water Act violations and millions of gallons of sewage spilled into local creeks and streams.
Patrick said he hopes to have an agreement with EPA this year. But even without a formal consent decree, the authority has been working in recent years to comply with EPA standards and to limit the number of water quality citations given to WWTA for its current system.
The WWTA inherited aging sewer systems from seven municipalities and faces other challenges from new developments in areas that don't have sewers and suffer from pollution runoff problems.
Dick Gee, chairman of the WWTA board, said last year that the Hamilton County sewer system typically has more than 200 weather-related sewer overflows every year.
"The overflows can contaminate local streams and potentially pose a public health risk," he said. "Addressing the issue is costly; however, it is the right thing to do and it is a requirement of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act."
In 2018, WWTA estimated that it needed to make $245 million of repairs to its sewer network to comply with EPA requirements. The county agency had considered building its own $45 million sewage treatment facility in Ooltewah, but Hamilton County commissioners rejected that proposal at the end of 2018.
The WWTA sends its sewage to Chattanooga's Moccasin Bend Sewage Treatment Plant, which is owned and operated by the city of Chattanooga. With both the city and WWTA facing EPA mandates for improvements in their sewer systems, a merger of the two sewer authorities has been considered but is not moving ahead, at least for now.
Similar to the 2013 agreement the city of Chattanooga reached with EPA, the WWTA anticipates it will take 15 to 20 years to complete the EPA required improvements. WWTA is borrowing money from both a low-interest state revolving fund and the county, as well as raising rates.
Last fall, WWTA approved a 12% rate hike to raise another $1.7 million a year and Patrick said he expects another sewer rate increase is likely this year, although he said the authority will work to have a lesser increase than last year.
The typical residential sewer bill from WWTA customers using approximately 4,000 gallons now pays $53.72, plus an $8 fee.
Projects underway or recently completed by the WWTA include the rehabilitation of the East Ridge Basin 10, upgrades to force main projects and pump stations in Ooltewah and projects in Red Bank.
"Like so many communities across the country, Hamilton County has aging sewer infrastructure that must be rehabilitated and upgraded to meet present and future needs and place us in compliance," Patrick said. "We look forward to the projects the new year brings and the difference their completion will make on our environment."
Contact Dave Flessner at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6340.