In 2006 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sued Lexington for violations of the Clean Water Act. A combination of aged decaying infrastructure and poorly planned development had given us flooding and raw sewage backing up in basements and overflowing into streets and streams.
Now, almost six years later, the city has made enormous progress: We've reached an agreement with the EPA to fix our problems, assessed a significant monthly fee on local water users to pay for the work and begun to make many of the necessary improvements.
An essential part of our agreement with the EPA is improving planning for development in Lexington, so that we know our sewer system has the capacity to handle any added development before a building permit is issued.
It's called a capacity assurance program, and it's common sense.
Consider the problem of packing a suitcase. If your suitcase is full but you want to add a few more items there are three options: Get a bigger suitcase. Take something out that's already packed. Or forget about adding the new stuff. What's not an option is showing up at the airport with zippers stressed beyond capacity and clothes spilling out.
Since it first arose during negotiations with the EPA the concept of capacity assurance has disturbed some developers and Commerce Lexington, the local chamber of commerce.
Judging by comments at meetings of the Capacity Assurance Task Force, it continues to bother them. They worry that they won't be able to put up housing developments or recruit new employers because there's not enough capacity to handle the added load on the sewer system and it could take years to build the infrastructure to create that capacity.
One of the most common issues that overwhelms our sanitary sewers is rainwater that gets into the system from sump pumps and residential downspouts and drains that empty into the sanitary sewers instead of the stormwater systems, a rain garden or a yard. The sewers become so full of rainwater during heavy storms that they overflow.
The task force, in an effort to provide some flexibility for developers, is proposing a credit system that would give them the opportunity to move their projects forward more quickly by redirecting some of this stormwater out of the sewer system, thereby increasing capacity. They could carry out the work themselves or pay the city to do it.
But even that accommodation was taken as economic heresy by Commerce Lexington and attorneys for the development community. They said it could slow down development, cost them more and that it's just not fair that they would pay to solve problems they didn't create.
Well, we're all paying to solve problems we didn't create. Virtually every water user in Fayette County pays a monthly fee to pay for the more than $300 million Lexington will spend to solve these problems.
It's also worth noting that the EPA reserved some of its strongest language for the problems created by developments that weren't planned or built correctly, leaving their sewage problems to flow downstream.
We didn't all create the problem but we will all benefit. If done right, sewage in the streets and streams will be a thing of the past, as will flooding so violent it can carry people away to their deaths.
Doing it right also means that Lexington will avoid hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines that EPA could assess if we do allow new tap-ons when there isn't the capacity to accommodate them.
This is a huge, extremely complex and very expensive problem. It is also one that must be solved not just to satisfy the EPA but to assure we have a safe place to live. Selling new homes and attracting new employers won't be easy if we have raw sewage in the streets.