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Staff file photo / Water overflows from this storm drain on Lupton Drive near the entrance to Rivermont Park where a sign warns of sewer water.

Chattanooga area homeowners will pay higher sewer bills again next month to help pay for federally mandated system upgrades needed to limit sewer overflows and other water pollution runoff.

The Hamilton County Wastewater Treatment Authority (WWTA) will boost its sewer fees by 9.8% on Oct. 1 for more than 32,000 customers, while the city of Chattanooga is planning a 6% rate hike for its 65,000 residential sewer users, officials said Friday.

The county sewer rate increase, which was adopted by WWTA directors last month, will add $5.28 to the monthly sewer bill for a typical household that uses 4,000 gallons of water a month, boosting their WWTA bill to about $59 a month. The increase is below the 12% jump in sewer rates implemented a year ago by the WWTA and is similar to the 9.8% rate hike in county sewer rates adopted in 2019.

The WWTA has been working with the EPA for over five years to develop a plan to bring the county into compliance with the Federal Water Pollution Control Act.

The city of Chattanooga reached a consent agreement to clean up its sanitary and stormwater sewer systems nearly a decade ago and completed phase 1 of its improvement program last year. The 2013 consent agreement between the city and EPA provided for more than $250 million of sewer repairs and upgrades by Chattanooga.

"We are now in Phase 2 of the consent degree with a 10-year EPA completion horizon," said Michael Marino, the Chatanooga area manager and program manager for Jacobs, which is overseeing the sewer upgrade program in Chattanooga. "The capital improvements budget for this coming year includes additional pipeline rehabilitation, pump station upgrades, improvements and upgrades to the Moccasin Bend Environmental Campus (formerly the Moccasin Bend Wastewater Treatment Plant) and finally Equalization Stations at strategic locations in the City to temporarily store excess storm and wastewater until the system has the capacity to handle it."

In the city of Chattanooga which began making sewer upgrades earlier than the county, next month's sewer rate increase will be the first in two years and will cost the typical water user another $3.24 a month, raising the average city sewer bill to $57.19 per month, officials said. The city sewer rate increase will cost ratepayers another $4.6 million a year to help fund a total of nearly $118.3 million of sewer operations and capital improvements.

The higher rate increases are needed outside of Chattanooga to make more than $200 million of improvements over the next decade and a half to aging underground pipes in much of the county and to add interceptors to comply with federal requirements to reduce excessive sanitary sewer overflows.

Despite recent improvements, the county sewer authority reported 178 sewer overflows in the fiscal year that ended June 30 and sewer moratoriums continue to limit new developments in parts of Soddy-Daisy, Signal Mountain, Red Bank, East Ridge and other areas of the county outside of the city of Chattanooga.

"These rate increases really need to be higher to pay for all of the improvements we need, but we're trying to keep them below 10% this year to ease the burden on our ratepayers," said Michael Patrick, executive director for the Hamilton County WWTA.

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File photo / Michael Patrick

The sewer authority is planning a capital budget of $15 million this year focused on improving the existing sewer lines.

"We're really concentrating on fixing what we have," Patrick said, noting that WWTA has no plans to extend its sewer services into any new areas of the county.

Patrick said he hopes to boost the amount available for repairs and upgrades with funds for sewer improvements made possible through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). Hamilton County could use a portion of the $71.4 million it received from the Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds for "necessary investments in water, sewer, or broadband infrastructure," according to the U.S. Treasury Department.

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger said he hopes to be able to use a portion of the coronavirus recovery funds to help pay for needed improvements in the county sewer system to both improve water and river quality and to remove costly limits on where new construction can occur.

"One of the things that we do want to help address with this money is the issue of our wastewater and sewers," Coppinger said. "We would like to be able to put in a sizable amount from these funds because when you look at how fast we are growing and the need for these improvements we recognize that this is causing us in some areas to lag behind."

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."

Patrick said he hopes to soon have a final consent agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to bring the county into compliance with federal water and sewer regulations.

"We've said this for several years, but I really believe we will wrap up this agreement sometime this fall," he said, noting that final EPA approval could take until next year.

The WWTA sends its sewage to Chattanooga's Moccasin Bend Environmental Campus, 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.

"That is something we continue to study and look at and I would certainly be supportive of anything that can help save money for our users," Coppinger said.

Currently, sewage must be transported more than 25 miles from the northern edges of Hamilton County to the city's sewage treatment plant on Moccasin Bend.

Coppinger said the county is no longer pursuing any immediate plans to build another sewage treatment plant elsewhere in Hamilton County and it is negotiating with Rhea County and the city of Dayton to handle sewage from the proposed industrial park at the McDonald's family farm in Sale Creek.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6340.

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