Fayette County

Lexington sewer rates rise, but few understand the reasons why

Paying for sewers is taking an increasing bite out of the wallets of Lexington residents, but most of us are blissfully unaware of what is going on beneath our feet.

A survey commissioned by local officials shows, for example, that three out of four people don't know the difference between sanitary and storm sewers.

(In the sanitary sewer system, water from a toilet, sink or shower goes into one set of pipes and then to a treatment plant before reaching a creek. Rainwater that runs off lawns and driveways goes into the storm sewer system, then directly into a creek.)

Officials released the survey Thursday as they announced a new education campaign to explain how sewers work.

The action comes as sewer costs are rising significantly.

Sanitary-sewer fees have doubled in the last 18 months. The average homeowner now pays $10 a month.

Starting in January, a new storm-sewer fee kicks in. It will be $4.32 a month for single-family homes, duplexes and farm parcels. Everyone else, including stores, factories, school and churches, would pay $4.32 for every 2,500 square feet of roof, driveway, parking lot or other impervious surface.

Behind the higher fees is a court order requiring the city to fix sewer problems that have been neglected for decades.

Over the next dozen years, the city will have to spend $250 million to $300 million after reaching a settlement with the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA had sued the city, saying its aging sewer systems were polluting creeks in violation of the Clean Water Act.

While more money for sewers is coming from residents' pockets, many people are continuing to do things that contribute to the problem.

The new education program, which will feature a talking storm sewer, will advise people that pet waste, oil, trash, grease, lawn chemicals and other things that wash into storm drains end up as pollution in creeks.

The program will begin with a Web site, as well as television and print ads.

"We simply cannot do the job of cleaning up our streams and rivers without public involvement and support," Mayor Jim Newberry said.

The news conference was held in Valley Park, which has Wolf Run Creek along one side. The creek often is littered with trash that washes in. Although the water flowing through the park was clear Thursday, the creek bottom was covered with algae. That, said Susan Bush, the city's director of environmental policy, shows that too many nutrients are washing in from lawns, streets and parking lots.

Urban County Councilwoman Peggy Henson, who represents the district that includes the park, said she often has to warn children that they should not play in the creek because it's polluted.

Officials said they were surprised and worried about responses to the survey.

More than half of those who responded, for example, did not know which watershed they live in, and 29 percent said they do not live in a watershed.

In fact, everyone lives in a watershed, the area where rain runs to a particular river or creek. There are nine watersheds in Fayette County.

In response to another question from the survey, 84 percent of people with school-age children said they didn't recall their children ever coming home and telling them something they had learned about storm water.

For that reason, the city will work with Bluegrass PRIDE on an education program in local schools.