Rates will rise to pay for sewer upgrades aimed at preventing sewage from reaching the Sangamon River, under a plan submitted to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency by the Springfield Metro Sanitary District.
Just how much more ratepayers will pay depends on how much improvement regulators require from a system that each year spills hundreds of millions of gallons of untreated sewage into river tributaries.
In a draft plan submitted to the state, the district proposes spending $65 million over 20 years. The money would be spent to install larger sewer collection pipes, close at least one overflow outfall to a tributary of the Sangamon River and otherwise increase the amount of effluent that reaches the sewage treatment plant during heavy rains.
There would still be two dozen spills per year totaling 278 million gallons, the district says. There are now 54 spills during a typical year, with 708 million gallons of untreated sewage being released to river tributaries.
Overflows happen because storm and sanitary sewer pipes are connected in a system that dates to the days of Lincoln, before indoor plumbing existed. Separating the two collection systems to divert stormwater from the treatment plant would result in zero overflows at a cost of $539 million, according to the district’s plan submitted to the state in December.
The combined sewer system is within Springfield city limits. Under the district’s preferred alternative, $40 million of the $65 million cost of reducing overflows would be paid by city ratepayers. Improvements will require a rate hike, according to the plan, but the timing and amount isn’t known.
The district had refused to make the plan public, according to a January story in the State Journal-Register, which reported that district officials told the newspaper that the plan was a draft and therefore exempt from disclosure under the state Freedom of Information Act. Illinois Times obtained a copy from the state.
Gregg Humphrey, district director, said the district still considers the document a draft and noted that plans must be approved by the state.
“We don’t want to get things ingrained,” Humphrey said. “No one remembers the second number you tell them.”
Rick Pinneo, an engineer with the state EPA who reviews plans, said that the state expects to complete its review by mid-year.
“It’s a rather voluminous study that they’ve done,” Pinneo said. “We’re still trying to get through it ourselves. … Right now, we just can’t say whether what they’ve proposed is acceptable or not.”
Illinois has more than 125 sewer systems with combined sanitary and stormwater disposal, more than any state in the nation, Pinneo said. So far, the state has approved long-range plans to reduce overflows in 70 percent of those systems, he said. The solutions range from separating functions, which is more likely with smaller systems, to increasing storage capacity.
Pinneo said the state won’t require the district to separate sewers at a cost of more than a half-billion dollars.
“The majority of the combined sewer system is downtown,” Pinneo said. “If you look at sewer separation, you’re talking about a lot of disruption.”
The state has required amendments to improvement plans in other cities. In Belleville, for example, the city wanted 30 years to fix problems. The state agreed to 17 years for improvements that will cost $85 million, Pinneo said.
In Peoria, where the federal Environmental Protection Agency is reviewing proposals, plans submitted four years ago still have not been approved, said David Barber, Peoria public works director. The federal government wants the city to spend as much as $475 million, Barber said.
“Our experience has not been positive,” Barber said.
If monitoring shows that improvements have not sufficiently reduced overflows, more work could be required after long-range plans are approved. Humphrey said he doesn’t think that will happen in Sangamon County.
“We have a high degree of confidence that what we’ve proposed will work,” Humphrey said.
Contact Bruce Rushton at firstname.lastname@example.org.