Maintenance, repairs focus of sewer bonds on Nov. 5 ballot

Sunday, October 20, 2013 | 3:35 p.m. CDT; updated 7:49 p.m. CDT, Monday, October 21, 2013

COLUMBIA — When city voters go to the polls on Nov. 5 to vote for $32.3 million in bonds for the sewer system, a bulk of the money will go toward maintaining and repairing the city's sewers.

While past sewer bond issues have been more evenly split between maintaining and replacing existing sewers and extending sewer lines, the focus this year is more on maintenance. Of the $32.3 million, $27.3 million or 85 percent of the funds, is slated for maintenance.

How the bond would be spent

Here's the spending plan for a $32.3 million bond issue on the Nov. 5 ballot for city voters:

Maintenance - 85 percent

  • $15.9 million - Inflow and infiltration reduction projects

  • $3.5 million - Annual sewer main and manhole rehabilitation
  • $3.8 million - Replacing private sewer lines
  • $4.1 million - Improvements at the Wastewater Treatment Plant

Sewer line extensions - 14 percent

  • $4.1 million - Extension of sewer mains for future growth

Financing costs - 1 percent

  • $600,000 - Cost to administer the bonds

Columbia voters approved bond issues of $18.9 million in 1998, $18.5 million in 2003 and $77 million in 2008. A majority of the 2008 bonds went toward projects to upgrade the Wastewater Treatment Plant with $10 million spent on maintenance to the city's sewer system.

Columbia Sewer Utility Manager David Sorrell said now that sewers have been extended to places where the city anticipates growth, it's time to repair the existing system. More than 200 miles of lines are more than 75 years old, and some sewer lines in older parts of Columbia have not been replaced in more than 100 years.

Columbia is not alone in catching up on its municipal infrastructure. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave the nation's infrastructure a grade of D+ and the waste water infrastructure was rated a D.

"We did a good job of building the infrastructure, but we didn't do a very good job of replacing it and keeping it up to date," Sorrell said.

Sorrell said there is a difference of opinion on how long a sewer pipe can last, but he said once a line is 80 years old, it needs to be replaced or rehabilitated.

There are 675 miles of sewers, and only 45 miles have been replaced or repaired in the past 40 years, which is an average of about one mile a year, Sorrell said.

The bonds would "allow us to be on a much more frequent schedule to try and get caught up on routine replacement," Sorrell said. 

If approved by a simple majority, the bond issue would result in a monthly increase for Columbia sewer customers every other year. The average monthly residential sewer bill of $24.20 would increase $1.45 in fiscal 2015, $1.28 in fiscal 2017 and $0.27 in fiscal 2019.

Even with the rate increase, Columbia sewer customers would still have a lower monthly rate than other Missouri cities, including Springfield, Jefferson City, Sedalia and Independence, according to Erin Keys, the city's acting engineering supervisor for sanitary sewer and stormwater utilities.

"I'd like to think that means we're spending our money efficiently and effectively," Keys said.

About $16 million of the $32.3 million will be spent on inflow and infiltration projects across Columbia. Inflow and infiltration are terms used to describe ways unwanted groundwater and stormwater enter the sanitary sewer system.

Columbia has two sewer systems — sanitary and storm sewers. When stormwater from rain enters the sanitary sewer system through connections such as roof downspouts, driveway drains, sump pumps or through holes or cracks in the sewer pipe, the manholes can overflow or sewage can back up into homes or businesses.

These events typically happen during times of heavy rainfall such as on May 31 when Columbia received 2.51 inches. This rainfall followed a heavy rainfall from the night before, which saturated the soil. Sorrell said about 20 homeowners reported backups, and 58 manholes overflowed because of the storm.

"When you look at the problems, we have problems all over town," Keys said. "Anybody who walks on Bear Creek or MKT Trail, if there's a manhole that's overflowed, you're going to smell it and have to be around that, and that's not pleasant. By keeping the whole system in good shape, it benefits everybody."

To identify problematic inflow and infiltration areas in the city, the Public Works Department has done studies in portions of Columbia. From there, the city prioritizes how to spend the money.

"With the inflow and infiltration, this is a start in some of the worst areas, but you're going to have to continue going on," Sorrell said. 

In addition to the $16 million dedicated to inflow and infiltration, $3.5 million would be spent on general funding for sewer main and manhole rehabilitation projects. These projects would upgrade manholes and collection systems that are in poor physical condition.

"This is just a portion of what needs to be done," Sorrell said. "It's just like putting new tires on your car every few years or you put a new roof on your house every 15 or 20 years, you have to continue to maintain what you've got. You're not going to do this work and be done.

"I'd like to think with this we're getting a little ahead of the game as opposed to being behind." 

Other repairs

The bond would also provide $3.7 million to replace private sewer lines owned by two or more homeowners known as private common collector elimination projects. Private sewer lines were common before codes were adopted in Columbia. Keys said most of these sewer lines fail because they were not built to a certain standard.

"The private mains don't get maintained at all," Keys said. "If there's anything that goes wrong with them, the property owners have to get together and figure out how to maintain it."

Homeowners must petition the city to get private sewer lines in poor condition replaced. The homeowner has to pay for an easement, but the city pays the remainder of the cost to replace private mains.

Supervising editor is John Schneller.

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Bill Weitkemper October 20, 2013 | 10:20 p.m.

In 2011 MDNR issued an “Abatement Order On Consent” (AOC), to the City. The AOC, which is still pending, stated that by December 31, 2021, the City shall complete I/I reduction projects according to an I/I Work Plan for the top 18 priority basins within the City which is anticipated will reduce at least 50% of the I/I from the entire wastewater collection system serving the City and by December 31, 2026, the City shall complete I/I reduction projects according to an I/I Work Plan for the top 25 priority basins within the City which is anticipated to reduce at least 80% of the I/I from the entire wastewater collection system serving the City.

This requirement is not realistic and it may not even be legal. It is not realistic to expect the City could meet the terms and conditions included in the AOC in a manner that will remain within the City’s financial capabilities or remain affordable for the City’s customers.

MDNR and the City should concentrate on reducing basement back-ups and sanitary sewer overflows, not reducing I and I – there is a big difference.

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