Sewer bills in Lexington could double or triple as the city spends an estimated $540 million to $814 million over the next decade to fix its overwhelmed sewer system.
The average household could pay between $21 and $42 more each month for sanitary-sewer service, according to preliminary estimates provided Tuesday to the Urban County Council's Environmental Quality Committee. The increases would be phased in over a decade.
The average Lexington household now pays about $20 a month, compared to a national average of $28.71.
The magnitude of the increase in sewer fees will depend largely on whether Lexington chooses a system capable of handling the kind of rainstorm that comes along once every two years, five years or 10 years.
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For example, it would cost an estimated $540 million to prepare the sewer system to handle a two-year flood, defined as 3.2 inches of rain in a 24-hour period. To handle a 10-year flood, defined as 4.3 inches of rain in 24 hours, it would cost an estimated $814 million.
Selecting a larger storm event would cost more up front, but there would be fewer sanitary-sewer overflows that affect residential areas in the future, and the city would have to pay fewer regulatory fines as a result of major rain events.
If there's an overflow after sewers are upgraded, the city will be fined $1,000 to $5,000 per event, depending on the volume of sewage, said John Steinmetz with Hazen and Sawyer Environmental Engineers, the project manager for the upcoming sewer-system overhaul.
The overhaul comes after Lexington was found in violation of the federal Clean Water Act and the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency filed a lawsuit against the city in 2006. The city and EPA entered into a consent decree that requires Lexington to fix its antiquated sanitary and storm sewers over the next 11 to 13 years.
To correct the problem, the city must get storm water out of the sanitary-sewer system so that sewer lines and manholes do not overflow and pollute local streams when it rains.
Charlie Martin, the city's director of water quality, said it's critical for Lexington to decide in coming weeks the size of storm it wants to handle. His office must submit the first of three sewer-system remedial plans to the EPA in October detailing what size pipes will be used, the construction schedule and projected costs.
As soon as the EPA approves the plan, the city will have 11 to 13 years to implement the entire fix. The city will have to work diligently to complete the overhaul on time, Martin said. Failure to complete the work on time will result in large fines against the city.
Steinmetz also recommended the city streamline its process for buying property easements and hiring engineers and contractors. The current system is time consuming and cumbersome, he said.
The council's Environmental Quality Committee is expected to recommend a sewer capacity to the full council after all members are briefed during a Committee of the Whole meeting scheduled for Aug. 23.
The first plan sent to the EPA will outline sewer upgrades for three of the city's seven watersheds: Wolf Run, West Hickman and East Hickman. Work will start on sewers in Wolf Run, which generally stretches from Old Frankfort Pike to Nicholasville Road inside New Circle Road, because problems there are the most severe.
Similar plans must be submitted in April 2012 for the Cane Run and Town Branch watersheds and in October 2012 for North Elkhorn and South Elkhorn watersheds.
The city's existing sewer-usage fee generates more than $40 million a year, Martin said.
The fee was increased by 50 percent a couple of years ago, followed by a 35 percent increase. Those funds already are being used to complete four capital projects defined in the consent decree.
"The decree, also, required us to conduct an extensive study of our system — where we lack capacity, why we lack capacity and remedial measures we plan to address those deficiencies," Martin said. "We've spent the last four years collecting that information."
That effort has cost the city $13 million, he said.
After the city's remedial plan is approved by the EPA, city officials will decide what projects to do first and how much they will cost. "Then we look at our bank account and say, 'Can we afford that with the money we have in the bank?'" Martin said.
If the city does not have the needed funds, "we will look at a rate increase," he said. "At some point there will be a rate increase. It's just a question of when."