A lesson from sewer woes

When U.S. District Judge Karl Forester signed the consent decree between Lexington and the Environmental Protection Agency early this month it was not huge news.

The city had already approved and begun collecting fees to pay for the sewer and storm water improvements required under the decree, and some work has been underway for more than a year.

The pace will pick up as deadlines arrive for detailed plans to keep raw sewage out of streams and assure the sanitary sewer system has enough capacity to handle proposed new developments.

City officials have launched an effort to engage interested groups, elected officials and the general public in decisions about what must be done and at what cost.

Expect a long and costly public works project that will require digging up roads and rights-of-way and redirecting sump pumps in private basements from the sanitary sewers into the drainage system that carries away rainwater.

There's a lot to be done. It's worth pausing, though, to look back at how we got here.

The lessons from this long process — the EPA sued Lexington more than four years ago for violations of the Clean Water Act — are also no surprise. Lexington, like a homeowner who ignores a leaky roof, had put off doing what had to be done for a long time. And, just as a small leak can become a huge headache, the price to fix the problems got larger.

Over the next decade, Lexington will spend hundreds of millions of dollars fixing long-neglected problems. The city has paid a $425,000 fine for the violations

The city's problems are not just the result of neglected and aging infrastructure. They also grew out of lax or non-existent control over development and slipshod enforcement of standards.

The result is thousands of acres of land that once soaked up water are now covered by hard surfaces, like pavement and roofs, that shed water like a slicker. That increases both the volume and the pace of water dumped into streams and storm water systems when there's a heavy rain.

The costs are also more than they appear at first glance. Thousands of residents of Lexington have been paying for decades as they've cleaned out and repaired basements flooded repeatedly, some awash in untreated sewage. They've paid higher insurance rates because of the history of flooding and they've worried about the health risks from mold and the presence of waste in their homes.

Two young women paid with their lives when they were swept away in September 2006 when they stumbled too close to raging storm water within view of Commonwealth Stadium.

The lesson for residents and civic leaders alike is that neglecting chronic problems is never a good, or cost-efficient, idea. The temptation to let a few themes slip because times are hard and political pressure is hot is an impulse our elected leaders must avoid. They must muscle up and make the best long-term investment for Lexington. The bill may not come due before the next election cycle, but it will be collected some day.