Why are Huntington residents looking at a possible 43.4 percent increase in the rates they pay to have their wastewater treated?
The short answer: Because the Indiana Department of Environmental Management has ordered the city to stop dumping raw sewage into Flint Creek and the Little River.
Complying with that order is a 17-year endeavor that began in 2009 and extends through 2026, broken down into nine separate projects with a total cost of $63 million.
The rate increase under consideration will pay for the third project in that series, known as Rabbit Run Phase I.
"This is the biggest and most expensive project," says Anthony Goodnight, who serves as director of public works and engineering services for the city.
The city plans to sell $16.5 million in bonds to pay for Rabbit Run I. The only way to raise the money to pay off those bonds is through higher rates paid by those who use the utility, Goodnight says.
"It's no different than the electric bill," he says. "It's no different from the gas bill."
Money raised through property taxes isn't available to pay sewer and water utility expenses, he says. It's allocated for specific services such as police and fire protection, streets and parks.
And what happens if the city doesn't comply with the IDEM order?
"It's a legal document that has all kind of nasty ramifications if the city does not comply," Mayor Brooks Fetters says.
"They would fine us," Goodnight says. "They would come in and make us do it."
"There are prohibitive fines," Fetters adds. "If the city doesn't comply, we probably could expect the EPA and IDEM to come in and take over the utilities and do the work."
The city would then be billed for the work, he adds.
It's not an avenue Fetters wants to pursue.
"I think I would not be doing my sworn duty as mayor to lead this city down a path of not honoring an agreed order," Fetters says.
The problem that must be solved happens when there is heavy rainfall.
As the water disposal system in Huntington and many other cities was originally designed, both wastewater (which includes sewage) and stormwater are carried through the same pipes to the city's wastewater treatment plant. A sudden influx of water from heavy rain overwhelms the treatment plant, resulting in untreated wastewater being dumped directly into the river.
Over the years, many combined sewer lines have been separated into one line specifically for wastewater and another for stormwater. While that's helped, it hasn't completely solved the problem.
And, Fetters says, the rock formations lying underneath most of the south side of Huntington, as well as in other parts of the city, make it cost-prohibitive to separate additional sewers - so other solutions must be devised.
What IDEM has mandated, Goodnight explains, is that the city be able to capture and store the "first flush" - the first inch of rain that falls. That first inch, he says, brings with it all the debris from the surface of streets and parking lots.
The wastewater plant can treat 7.5 million gallons of water a day, Goodnight says. On a normal day, about 2 million to 2.5 million gallons flows into the plant.
IDEM wants the city to be able to handle water from a 10-year storm - the heaviest rainfall likely to occur in a 10-year period.
The solution, Goodnight says, includes a holding tank.
"When we can't take more, we'll divert it into the tank," he says.
The water will be held until the storm passes and the flow into the treatment plant returns closer to normal. The excess water and sewage can then be fed into the plant, Fetters adds.
The holding tank is only one part of the total plan, which includes improvements to the treatment plant, installation of interceptor lines to capture overflow and other projects.
The most expensive parts of the project, Goodnight says, were purposely scheduled in the early years so that their cost wouldn't be driven up by inflation. Even so, the possibility of future rate increases can't be ruled out, he says.
Components of the total project, along with the scheduled date of completion and approximate cost, are:
• Improvements to the wastewater treatment plant, to be completed in 2014 at a cost of $12 million. This project is currently underway and involves replacing some worn-out components that are 40 to 50 years old.
"Everything out there has lived its useful life," Goodnight says.
• Installation of interceptor sewers - lines that will capture stormwater during times of heavy rainfall - from Elmwood Park on William Street to the Riverfront Plaza parking lot, in front of the former Marsh grocery store. This project is currently underway and will cost about $7.2 million.
• Rabbit Run Phase I, the project currently under discussion and scheduled to take place in 2014. The major component of this project is constructing a 2.25 million gallon storage tank - a concrete structure 90 feet wide, 190 feet long and 40 feet deep - behind the wastewater treatment plant on Hitzfield Street.
A second phase of the Rabbit Run project is scheduled to take place in 2026, but Goodnight says part of that project may be included in the current work, which would raise the cost of the 2014 Rabbit Run project above the estimated $15 million but result in a decrease in the cost of the 2026 project.
Rabbit Run, Fetters explains, is the name of a ditch that carries sewage and stormwater from much of Huntington's south side to the treatment plant. It originates near Hier's Park and was originally an open ditch; many years ago, sewer tiles were placed in the ditch to carry the flow. It ends up on William Street and crosses the river to reach the treatment plant.
Original plans for Rabbit Run I called for a $26 million project, which would have involved constructing an even larger holding tank. There wasn't enough room to build that tank on wastewater treatment facility property, so land was purchased on the south side of the river as a site for the holding tank. The plan would have necessitated pumping excess water back across the river to the holding tank.
However, Goodnight says, the city spent $1,000 on new batteries that power monitors recording the amount of water flowing into the treatment plant. They found that the amount of water wasn't nearly as high as originally thought and could be handled in a smaller holding tank that would fit on the treatment plant property - making it unnecessary to pump the water back across the river and cutting some $10 million from the project.
• Replace flap gates in 2016 at a cost of $221,000.
• Improvements to effluent pumps in 2018 at a cost of about $3.3 million.
• Installation of another interceptor line in 2020 at a cost of about $1 million.
• Installation of more interceptor lines in 2022 at a cost of about $4.6 million.
• Installation of additional interceptor lines in 2024 at a cost of $11.5 million.
• Complete phase two of the Rabbit Run project in 2026 at a cost of $4 million. This is the final scheduled project.