Oneida County's $158 Million Sewer project has been portrayed by government and media as resolving a problem of too much storm water getting into sewers that now must be removed. With that perspective, few would question the distribution of costs recently published in the local newspaper -- with the communities having the "leakiest" sewers being stuck with the greatest bills. Ignored, however, are the facts that the project was triggered by the County's violation of law; that the violation has exposed local communities to costs, which could have legally been smaller and postponed had no violation occurred; and that the violation enabled the County and certain municipalities to grow their tax bases and incomes "on the cheap." If the County proceeds down its current path on cost sharing with our system of overlapping local governments, the entities that benefited the most from the violation (the County and Town of New Hartford) are going to continue to benefit, while the burden of paying for the project will be passed on to the Villages and the City of Utica.
The table that accompanies this article breaks down costs by jurisdiction, using cost information from an Oct. 10th OD article and an Oct. 8th County press release, plus readily available population information. This table shows what each community would pay, if it is responsible to fix the sewers that it owns. Notice that the Towns' "Cost Per Capita" amounts are significantly less than those of the Villages. Now consider that every Village is also part of a Town. While it is yet undecided how these costs will end up being distributed (everyone is praying for grants), it does not seem unrealistic that Village residents will also be made to pick up the per capita costs of the Town within which they reside. Additionally, the County intends to pass "District Wide" costs on to ALL sewer users, including those living within the affected municipalities listed. The last column shows the "Cumulative Per Capita Cost" of the Consent Order. [Village+Town+"District Wide" or, for Town-only residents, Town+"District Wide"]. The difference between Towns and Villages becomes more pronounced.
It is important to remember that these costs are merely the costs necessary to bring the County's, Towns' and Villages' sewer systems into compliance with the Consent Order. The costs do not include the usual sewer user fees collected to process our wastewater. How did we get into this predicament?
We have to go back to when Utica and the Villages were first settled. People lived so close to each other in the settlements that sewers became necessary to carry both storm water and waste water away to where they could be "harmlessly" discharged to a stream. Sewers were "combined" because both storm and waste water were transported together. Later, when it was discovered that the discharge was not so "harmless," treatment plants were added to the end of the pipe before discharge to remove most of the harmful material. Because storm water was included, treatment plants had to be quite large, but even a large plant would not be able to contend with all the water from a significant storm. "Combined Sewer Overflows" (CSOs) were designed to allow some of the combined waters to discharge directly into the stream, bypassing treatment during storms. This was preferable to having the waters back up into people's basements or having to make treatment plants even bigger to handle large storms. This was deemed acceptable because the overflowed waste was highly diluted with rain water.
Later someone had the idea that, if sanitary waste and storm water were handled by separate pipes, storm water could be discharged directly to the stream and concentrated sanitary waste could be piped directly to the treatment plant without the need for an overflow. If storm water was kept out of the system, treatment plants would not have to be as large. The treatment plant and sewer pipes would be designed to accommodate all the waste for the population to be served, which, unlike the weather, would be predictable. Newer developments followed this model of separate sewers for sanitary waste and storm water. If the system is not designed correctly, or if rainwater gets into the system and there is an overflow, it is called a "Sanitary Sewer Overflow" (SSO). SSOs have been made illegal, not only because, by design, they are not supposed to exist, but because spills of concentrated wastes are harmful.
Our region's sewers consist of both the combined and separated types. Understandably the region's combined sewers are found primarily in Utica and the Villages because they were the first places to be developed. Notably, separated sewers predominate in the Towns where development is more recent. There are many CSOs in Utica, which are reached before waters enter the County system. The City is responsible for taking care of those. The Villages, however, discharge their combined wastes directly to the County interceptor before reaching a CSO. To relieve the system of rainwater from the Villages, the County maintained a CSO in Yorkville.
Federal Law (the Clean Water Act) has allowed CSOs to continue to exist in recognition of the facts that it would be prohibitively expensive for older communities to retrofit their sewer systems to the newer standards, and that when spillages do occur, they are relatively dilute and harmless. The law contemplated that over time CSOs would be subjected to increasingly stringent standards but at a pace that the communities would be able to afford to keep up with. That affordable pace, however, has been interrupted locally by the Consent Order.
Since Utica and the Villages were close to full build-out, most of the newer development -- with separated sewers -- occurred in the Towns. In hindsight, the new developments should not have been allowed to connect to the County's sewer interceptor upstream of the Yorkville CSO. They either should have been put on septic systems (which would mandate less development), or the municipalities that wanted dense development should have financed (expensive) separate lines to carry separated waste to the County interceptor at a point where the Yorkville CSO would be bypassed. Regardless, neither approach was taken. It was much less expensive (and more lucrative for the County and Towns in terms of tax-base development) to allow waste-only lines to simply connect to the County's combined interceptor and CSO.
In 2006, the Federal government noticed all the lines with separated waste from new developments tying into the Yorkville CSO. The lines increased the concentration of waste in overflows during rain events. The Federal government determined that the CSO was really an illegal SSO that needed to be abated and directed the State to take action. The State, in turn, filed charges against the County, which were settled by the Consent Order.
Had the violation not occurred, the Villages would not now be under the Consent Order deadline with threats of fines to tighten their discharges to the Yorkville CSO. They would have been accorded the leniency accorded to other older communities to gradually bring themselves up to tighter standards.
Although Utica is not separately shown on the table, its residents, too, are going to be impacted by the Consent Order through the "District Wide" costs. While Utica residents will pay "only" $735 each given its larger population, they will contribute about 28% of the entire $158 million cost to fix this SUBURBAN problem. However, Utica has its own $152 million project to tighten city-owned CSOs. Even though the County will make Uticans pay to fix a similar problem in the suburbs, there is no offer from the County to help Utica with its problem. The cost of that project combined with the Consent Order will boost Utica's per capita cost to $3,290, which is right up there with the Villages' costs.
Taking a bird's-eye view of the situation, Utica and the Villages are going to be forced by the County through the Consent Order to subsidize suburban growth in the Towns. We have lived with such Town-favoring policies for more than 30 years. They have only accelerated Greater Utica's downward spiral by exacerbating sprawl, raising the cost of government, and driving more people and jobs entirely out of the region.
It is time for a new approach.
[This article appeared in the November 2009 Utica Phoenix. Be sure to pick up the December Phoenix to read "HOPEnhagen or HOAXenhagen"]