I met a living embodiment of the unintended consequences of landmark legislation at last month's WEFTEC conference and trade show for the water and wastewater industries: George Martin, assistant manager of the Greenwood Metropolitan District in South Carolina, chair of the Water Environment Federation's Program Committee, and last year's recipient of the organization's Collection System Award.
Having just renewed the district's stormwater permit for five years, Martin's putting his imperative to lower nutrient and phosphorus discharge levels temporarily on hold to manage a massive effort that he hopes will avert a consent decree stemming from sanitary sewer overflows.
About a decade ago, the district took ownership of an amalgamation of 38 collection systems — including ones that had been installed by developers and maintained by property owners — after a problematic pump station prompted the state to issue a consent order. EPA touts the district's ensuing CMOM (that's “capacity, management, operation, and maintenance” for those of you not in the wastewater sector) program as a model for bringing order to such chaos.
But as is often the case, implementation is easier on paper than in the field.
Martin's working with almost 370 miles of pipe; much of it clay, most of it almost a century old; and some of it acting like it was designed by children playing with an incomplete set of Tinkertoys. Just to “bring our existing system into today's compliance,” as Martin puts it, the district is adding two BNR (biological nutrient removal) units, four clarifiers, and a UV disinfection system to its 12-mdg treatment plant.
The district floated $45 million in bonds to pay for these improvements and an ongoing replacement program to install larger-diameter pipe. Even so, rates are almost five times what they were in 1995. So Martin was delighted to learn the district would receive $1.3 million in stimulus funding to replace 4,000 feet of pipe in a low-income neighborhood.
Just one problem, though: He mistakenly believed the money was a grant. Though almost half is at 0% interest, the rest carries the standard revolving-loan rate of 3%. So all of it must be repaid, and eventually rates will go up again.
Martin feels very bad about that for his customers' sake. Here he thought he'd neatly cleared the funding hurdle in his race to satisfy a public imperative. Instead, this particular group of the public — already struggling to get by — will have to pitch in along with everyone else.
But what can he do? Clean water and better infrastructure in financially challenged areas are both noble goals.