If you are new to Lexington or just busy and not able to keep up with such things as the city’s massive, years-long repair of its storm water and sanitary sewer systems, here’s a brief update for you.
Some background: This goes back to 2006 when a group of concerned citizens, arguing that the city had failed to properly take care of its sewer systems, threatened to sue the city of Lexington if the EPA chose not to. There had for years been a lot of pretty nasty overflowing, especially following heavy rains.
The EPA and the state did sue the city. The lawsuit was settled, resulting in a consent decree mandating that Lexington would repair the systems at a cost of nearly $600 million. The deadline is 2026. And if you drive around the city, you’ve not doubt noticed that repairs are now underway.
Overseeing this work from day one has been Charlie Martin, Director of the City’s Division of Water Quality, who we caught up with for the latest on the project.
Q: We last talked in August of 2017. Bring us up to date on compliance with this EPA Consent Decree.
A: We still have a host of construction projects going on throughout the city. Some that the people have noticed, probably others that they haven’t seen. I’m sure most anybody that comes into downtown via Richmond Road in Main St. have seen us tearing up the street there.
We’re also still building tanks. We built three tanks that are in service right now and we have another three that are under construction. One that is semi-obvious is at Richmond Road and New Circle.
We’re about 33 percent done as far as the number of projects that we have to do. So, we still have a way to go, but we’re making good progress.
Q: Tell us more about that system of the huge holding tanks that have been going up all around the city. Am I right that their function is to capture the overflow during heavy rains?
A: Exactly. Yes.
Q: You put up a big one out on Newtown Pike - 11 million gallons; about 60 ft high. You dressed that one up a bit. Tell us about that.
A: Right. I was concerned about its proximity to the Legacy Trail and also to the interstate and I didn’t want to have our version of “Florence Y’all” out there by the interstate and neither did a lot of people, including the mayor.
So, we spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to make it into an amenity. And in the end, what we’ve created was what a lot of people from among the trail users particularly wanted: an area that was a rest stop, a restroom, a place where you get off your bike or get off your skates or whatever you’re doing and rest for a little bit.
The trees that we planted out there won’t grow fast enough for me. I would really be very happy to have that turn into a very shady and restful spot along that trail, then I will think that we did a good job.
Q: Under the consent decree, the city must also spend about $30 million to reduce chronic flooding problems in neighborhoods. Has that work been underway as well?
A: Yeah. We’re about halfway done with it.
Q: The city sewer fees were increased by 48 percent in 2008 and then by 30 percent in 2009 and then, again, in 2015 and 2016 to pay the interest on about $48 million in bonding that the city took out to pay for sewer costs. Do you anticipate additional increases?
A: I would say that we always have to be mindful of the potential of additional increases. We maintain a cash flow model that we update every six months because, when you’re spending tens of millions of dollars on projects like we are, one project can upset the apple cart.
We’ve been able to live within our means and stay on schedule. We’re now trending $102 million less than what we originally projected. So, someday, yes. Imminent? I would say no.
Q: Back in 2011, there was a projection that the average sewer bill would jump a 137 percent by 2026 to about $71 a month. Was that an accurate estimate?
A: The fact that we’re trending as well as we are right now is encouraging that we’ll be able to absorb problems down the way.
Q: This is a giant project and I have to believe that you have encountered some pretty difficult obstacles along the way. Can you cite a few of them?
A: Well, the biggest obstacles that we have right now are these pipelines which are the bulk of the projects that we have remaining. We’re trying to install pipelines in streets like Main Street or Euclid Avenue. You’ve got existing utilities in the way, some of which people don’t even know they’re there because they may have been there for a hundred years.
We’re also trying to deal with traffic and businesses and all the other things that go on. We’re trying to deal with an urban lifestyle while we replace the sewer system. It’s like working on your car while you’re driving down the interstate. It does have a lot of risks to it.
Q: Earlier, you mentioned the Town Branch Commons project. Did that cause you to have to change plans or schedules for sewer line replacement around the city?
A: It did, yes. We moved up the sewer line replacement that’s going on on Main Street, Eastern Avenue, Short Street that people are seeing right now. We wanted to get in there and make sure that we did our part of our project before Town Branch Commons went in place because you don’t want to tear it up twice. Nobody, including me, would understand that.
Q: Should we be noticing a difference now? Or is there a turning point yet to come?
A: I think there’s still a turning point yet to come. Most of our overflows are in the drainage area that we call West Hickman which is Tates Creek Road extended. In a lot of the old county areas prior to merger, those pipes had been in place for years. Since 65 percent of our overflows are there and we haven’t completed as many projects there, I think people out there will see the change as we work our way up the hill.
For folks who drive out Tates Creek Road, they may have noticed near Wilson Downing, there are big pipes on both sides of the road. They are drilling under the road right now to put in what we call West Hickman 4 Trunk D. It will come up to Gainesway to Greentree and then proceed north from there through Gainesway and then Merrick and all that. That’s when people will really start seeing and noticing a difference.
Q: So, a lot yet to be done?
A: Yeah. A lot – it’s still a long way to go. You mentioned storm water being a component of the Consent Decree. I’m happy to tell you that we just won a national award for our storm water program in “program management” and “overall program.” We just won this award at a national conference of people who do things like I do. It’s a gratifying day when you can emerge from a consent decree as far as being a non-performer and 10 to 15 years later you’re winning a national award competing against the likes of Los Angeles and Washington DC.