Will Lexington residents want a sewer system that can handle the kind of heavy rain that comes along every two years, every five years or once a decade?
That was one of the central questions Monday night at the first of three community meetings with Charles Martin, director of the city's Division of Water Quality.
But citizens must remember that the more protection the sewer system provides, the more it costs, he said.
The city was found in violation of the federal Clean Water Act and is under a consent decree with the Environmental Protection Agency to overhaul its antiquated sewer system.
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Martin gave a Sewers 101 tutorial because everyone will have to pay eventually.
"The whole purpose is to give people an opportunity to come in and ask questions about a big issue facing this community," he said.
The first meeting focused on sewers in the Wolf Run watershed, or drainage area. It's roughly the part of the west side of the city that includes the Southland Drive area and the area around the University of Kentucky's hospital expansion, now under construction. The city has seven such drainage areas.
Martin started with Wolf Run, he said, because problems there are the most severe. "It will be up to the community to decide what capacity level (of protection) they want," he said.
The initial estimate is $40 million to overhaul sewers in the Wolf Run watershed so they could deal with a 24-hour storm that would be likely about every two years. The work would correct broken, leaky sewer lines that are too small to adequately carry away sewage, and eliminate sewage backing up into basements and flowing out of manhole covers during heavy rain.
The estimated cost to protect Wolf Run against a five-year, 24-hour storm is $51 million; for a 10-year, 24-hour downpour, it's $65 million.
Martin had cost estimates for two other watersheds: It would cost $32 million to deal with a two-year storm in East Hickman and $208 million for a storm of the same size in West Hickman.
Martin said he did not know what the total cost of a complete overhaul of Lexington's sewer system would be. Those figures are being collected.
Robert Koegel of Pinkney Drive asked what the Wolf Run costs would be when figured on a per-household basis. Martin said he did not know but would get those figures for the next community meeting, scheduled Monday at Victory Baptist Church, 2261 Armstrong Mill Road.
Paula Singer, president of the Hamilton Park neighborhood association, said that it seemed "very shortsighted" to build sewers to accommodate a two-year storm. "Why build for a two-year storm when you know at some point down the road you're going to get a 10-year deluge?" she said.
One individual suggested the sewer fees be assessed for a designated period, until the improvements are paid for.
Plans for Lexington's sewer work will be submitted to the EPA in three stages. The first plan is due in April, the next in October and the last in April 2012.
If Lexington does not make its deadlines for completing the work along the way, the EPA "will fine us mightily," Martin said.
"By this time next year, we should know what the total cost of a complete rehab of the sanitary sewers will be," he said.
When the EPA approves the plans, the clock starts ticking. Lexington will have 11 to 13 years to implement the entire plan, Martin said. That sounds like a long time, he said, but it's not considering the amount of work to be done.
"We have to start and go fast," he said.