Sewer funding delayed
Committee to review authority operations, plans
A second deadline has come and gone and an estimated 200 Warwick homeowners, who have until the end of this year to close their cesspools, still don’t know whether their neighborhoods will eventually get sewers.
Under an extension issued in March by the Department of Environmental Management (DEM), the city had until June 30 to inform them when it intends to sewer several neighborhoods where cesspools are prevalent. The June deadline was an extension of a Jan. 1, 2013 deadline.
The Warwick Sewer Authority has already taken an important step to satisfying DEM with the adoption of a plan calling for sewers in Governor Francis Farms [Project III]; northwest of Gorton Pond; the O’Donnell Hill area; and Bayside, which includes neighborhoods off Tidewater Drive. But these are only plans and, until there is funding, nothing in the way of construction can take place.
Ward 8 Councilman Joseph Gallucci has pushed for additional sewer construction, especially in his ward that, he notes, generates a third of the city’s tax revenues [it includes the mall and Route 2], yet has not seen any new sewer construction in more than a decade. Gallucci introduced a resolution calling for a $23 million revenue bond for sewer construction that was to have been heard in May. He pushed the vote to this Monday and, when it came up then, he delayed consideration to the Sept. 9 City Council meeting.
Ward 5 Councilman Edgar Ladouceur is likewise anxious for sewer service in his ward.
“I don’t want to do something just to say I’ve done something,” Ladouceur said yesterday.
He wants to get the full picture of sewer construction plans, along with projected costs and system needs, before issuing bonds.
Of particular concern are wastewater treatment plant levees that were breached during the flood of March 2010. From what he has seen, the levees are four to five feet shy of where they should be. He questions the advisability of extending the system if the treatment plant isn’t sufficiently protected.
“It doesn’t make sense to put down $23 million of pipes and have problems at the plant,” he said.
Also, he notes, that the sewer authority hopes to win a $5 million grant to do the levee work. If that happens, it would affect how much the city needs to borrow.
To get a handle on what’s needed, as well as sewer authority operations, Ladouceur introduced a resolution calling for the formation of a sewer review committee. The committee, which Ladouceur chairs, was approved by the council Monday night. He said the committee will look at all aspects of the authority, including assessments, operating costs, interest charges on assessment payments and even enabling legislation. The authority had sought to gain revisions to its enabling legislation this year, but the council did not act on the changes in time for the General Assembly. Ladouceur has reservations with changes in the enabling legislation as proposed.
“Giving them more control is not the answer, giving them the right control is,” he said.
Ladouceur is aware of the DEM deadline for cesspools and he wants to provide an alternative.
“Those people have got to be helped and protected,” he said.
He said the committee would include representation from DEM, Save the Bay, Coastal Resource Management Council, the city administration, the Narragansett Indians [to address archeological issues], Department of Public Works and a citizen representative [Michele Komar].
Gallucci has identified $60 million in sewer construction but feels the $23 million is a good start. As this would be a revenue bond, paid off with assessment fees and operational costs, the bond does not require voter approval.
Meanwhile, homeowners with cesspools within 200 feet of the coast have until the end of this year to discontinue using them, according to legislation approved in 2007 and revised in 2011. These property owners have been notified on at least two occasions by DEM.
There is an exemption, however, when a municipality can show it plans to have operational sewers by Jan. 1, 2020. Funding for the project must be secured by Jan. 1, 2015.
Russell Chateauneuf, DEM’s chief of groundwater and wetlands protection, said Tuesday this year’s cesspool deadline remains in effect. He said the 2020 deadline applies where sewers are planned, provided existing cesspools “are not an obvious public health threat.”
“If we don’t know one way or another, the law is still the law and they need to do it by the end of the year,” Chateauneuf said. He said about a third of the 1,500 property owners identified with coastal area cesspools statewide have connected to sewers or replaced them with septic systems since being notified about six years ago.
Janine Burke, executive director of the Warwick Sewer Authority questions how some homeowners, especially those on lots as small as 4,000 square feet, will do it. Lots of that size can’t accommodate conventional septic systems. And specialized systems can cost as much as $40,000. She said this is not limited to smaller lots and that there are far larger Warwick Neck properties that, because of rock ledge and poor drainage, face the same problem.
Burke says there are alternatives, such as low pressure and suction systems, to gravity feed systems that could be used to provide service to areas off Tidewater Drive. Archeological findings put a halt to the Riverview and Bayside projects. Burke feels there are ways of not disturbing Native American sites and has suggested developing plans for a system.
“But we don’t even have the money to see what it takes,” she said.
Understandably, she said, the authority is balking at spending an estimated $400,000 when there are no assurances the council will approve bonding for the projects.