Board told to raise levee before spending $14M on sewer plant
Protect the investment.
That observation, made by more than one person as the Warwick Sewer Authority outlined its 20-year facilities plan last Wednesday, makes a lot of sense to the executive director, Janine Burke.
Burke said last week that she would like to see measures taken to prevent future flooding of the treatment plant, at an estimated cost of $7 million before, or simultaneously with, another $14 million in upgrades are done as required to meet stricter Department of Environmental Management (DEM) regulations for nitrogen and phosphorous in the Pawtuxet River.
“I can’t imagine you fixing all that stuff without fixing the levee,” said Richard Langseth, executive director of the Greenwich Bay Watershed Group. He called raising the levee the “number one priority … if this goes out in a hurricane, we have big problems.”
“I sort of assumed it was combined,” said Angelo Liberti, DEM chief of surface water protection, yesterday. “We want to talk to the city as to how to combine the projects.”
Mayor Scott Avedisian said yesterday “it doesn’t make sense” to go ahead with upgrades to the treatment plant without first addressing the potential of future flooding.
The levee built for a 100-year storm failed to hold back the surging Pawtuxet in March 2010. The river crested at about 21 feet, at least two feet higher than the levee, pouring millions of gallons into to the grounds of the plant. Processing tanks were inundated, pumping stations submerged, and the water rose above doors in the first-floor administrative offices. The sewer authority was not alone. The nearby Warwick Animal Shelter was evacuated as waters climbed to the building’s eaves.
The city’s sewage treatment system was virtually knocked out for weeks, although the basic chlorination of wastewater was restored in a matter of days. More than $10 million was spent to get everything up and running again.
“We’ve got to fix the levee first. I’m absolutely in agreement,” Burke said last week, following the public hearing. Combining the upgrades and the flood work might offer savings in terms of engineering and provide a use for material excavated for the construction of the additional settling tanks, Burke said.
But there are issues of timing and money.
Warwick is required to meet the more stringent requirements on nitrogen and phosphorous by the fall of 2014. That means the work has to start within the year. However, the authority has not secured bonds for the work and to add in another $7 million for flood prevention seems remote.
While there promises to be a $20 million bond on the state ballot in November to augment the state revolving loan fund – a source of low interest loans – the borrowing would still need City Council approval and the council has been reticent about anything that could mean increase rates.
Avedisian thought there could be ways to reduce costs borne by ratepayers. He said the city is exploring federal grants as well as innovative programs with the EPA that could reduce the city’s share of the cost.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency turned down the city’s request for funding for improving the levee. Nonetheless, Burke is hopeful of gaining some federal assistance and continues to pursue that.
Liberti, who attended last week’s meeting, said he understands the facilities plan accounted for the cost and, from what he could see, it is minimal.
Asked whether the authority could get an extension of the September 2014 deadline to have the upgraded facilities operational, either to get the flood prevention work done first or because of a lack of funding, Liberti said, “I’m willing to listen.”
Yet, he thought it would be a mistake to delay either project.
“I understand all the communities are struggling right now, but interest rates are low and costs [of construction] are down. As long as it is affordable, now is the best time to move forward.”
At the meeting, Gov. Francis Farms resident and School Committee member Eugene Nadeau questioned the need for the improved process, which has been viewed as a large expenditure for a minimal reduction of pollutants. Nadeau talked about the river’s flooding cycle and contended that even with the floods of 2010 that sent millions of gallons of untreated wastewater into the bay, it didn’t do much.
“Not one fish died. Two were reported holding their noses as they swam under the Jamestown Bridge,” he said, underscoring his point. He said the cost of sewers keeps pushing the debt residents have to bare up and up.
“People have no idea what is being done to them,” he said, claiming that Warwick city debt stands at $750 million.
“Look at our children, we’re mortgaging their future,” he said.
“Stop, enough is enough. No more increases. Nobody can afford them.”
According to the plan and the rates approved by the authority, residential customers will see the greatest increase in 2014. Rates of $38.81 per 1,000 cubic feet of water will go to $45.95 and the annual customer charge will climb from $25.75 to $30.49.
Resident Michelle Komar said that it has taken years for the DEM and the Rhode Island Airport Corporation to reach an agreement over the discharge of deicing fluids and now that RIAC has agreed to build a system to capture glycol, “they have an out.” Her point was: Why should the city be held to any stricter standards? Also, she noted the airport system will be dumping treated storm water into the city sewer system and that RIAC should be accountable for any added costs of treatment, not the rate payers.
Burke said the comment period on the facilities plan will close on May 5. Final design of the upgraded system has started and would be reviewed periodically by DEM.
Considering what is planned and what needs to be done, Burke said, “We have some major challenges but no answers [on funding]. It can’t fall just on the backs of the ratepayers.”