Former sewer supervisor questions Tuesday's bond issue

Sunday, November 3, 2013 | 5:12 p.m. CST; updated 4:42 p.m. CST, Tuesday, November 5, 2013

COLUMBIA — Former city sewer maintenance superintendent Bill Weitkemper says he questions whether the upcoming bond issue addresses the city's biggest sewer needs.

Weitkemper, who was employed by the city's Public Works Department for 37 years, argues the city is allocating too much time and money to reduce inflow and infiltration instead of concentrating on eliminating basement backups and reducing sewer overflows.


Columbia will hold a citywide election on Tuesday. The sewer bond issue is the only thing on this year's ballot.

Polls will be open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m.

To find your polling place, visit


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 bond

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Nearly half of the $32.3 million sewer bond voters will have the chance to approve or reject on Tuesday would go toward inflow and infiltration reduction projects. Weitkemper said the city does not know the extent that inflow and infiltration must be reduced.

Inflow and infiltration are terms used to describe ways unwanted groundwater and stormwater enter the sanitary sewer system.

Weitkemper says there should be more discussions about cost-effective ways to deal with inflow and infiltration.

In order to find inflow and infiltration problems in the city, the public works department first identifies areas in the city where there have been overflows or backups in the sewer. The city will then run sewer system evaluation studies to determine if there are cracks in the pipe.

One such test is a smoke test where smoke is penetrated through the sewer. Where smoke is visible, the city knows there is a crack in the pipe, according to David Sorrell, sewer utility manager for the city.

Weitkemper says inflow and infiltration projects are too costly and do not necessarily reduce the number of overflows or backups.

"With I and I (inflow and infiltration projects), it is like chasing a ghost," Weitkemper said. "You don't know how well a specific project is going to work until you try it. And by then, you've already spent the money to try."

Weitkemper said he was disappointed when the city did not follow his recommendation and perform continuous flow monitoring in the inflow and infiltration study area. Then, he says, only the projects that worked best could be used in other areas of the city.

Weitkemper argues that while the city has focused more on inflow and infiltration problems in recent years, the number of manhole overflows and basement backups has not decreased. Weitkemper said there was an increase in overflows and backups in fiscal year 2013 despite only 38 inches of rainfall — a fairly mild amount.

"They're just continuing to do what they've been doing and that hasn't been effective," Weitkemper said.

Sorrell said the focus of the money allocated to inflow and infiltration is just the start of fixing problems in the worst areas of town. He said there is still more that needs to be done to repair the aging sewer system. Of the 675 miles of sewers, only 45 miles have been replaced or repaired in the past 40 years, Sorrell said.

"This is an important step in continuing to maintain the system we have," Sorrell said. "These projects are just a small portion of what needs to be done."

The city has been in discussions with the Missouri Department of Natural Resources about an order that would force the city to greatly reduce inflow and infiltration levels.

Weitkemper said the issues with the DNR should have been worked out before the vote.

"If they don't address these issues before the vote, they'll continue to ignore them," Weitkemper said. "If the bond is defeated, they have to address these other issues."

Sorrell said that though the city has been in discussions with the DNR about a decree, no such order exists at this time.

"We're acting and taking the effort without an order," he said. "I hope after they see what we've done, there will be no need for one."

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 by $1.45 in fiscal year 2015, $1.28 in fiscal 2017 and $0.27 in fiscal 2019.

If the bond does not pass, the city would propose a 38 percent rate increase on Columbia sewer customers in 2015. That would amount to an increase of approximately $9.18 per month.

To see sewer projects and locations, click on the blue icons for more information.

Supervising editor is Zachary Matson.

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Mike Martin November 3, 2013 | 10:18 p.m.

If, as Mr. Sorrell says, no Missouri DNR order exists, then why did his staff prepare and present a Powerpoint to Columbia City Council members in November 2011 about just such an order?

Details are on pages 9-17 of this file:

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