Butler County cities must repair critical water, sewer lines piece by piece

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Butler County cities must repair critical water, sewer lines piece by piece

IN-DEPTH COVERAGE

This is the second of a two-part series looking at the condition of many of the city’s streets and the aging water, sanitary and combined sewer system.

Last Sunday, we reported how Mother Nature and the recession have taken their toll on the aging asphalt in Hamilton and Middletown. Dwindling budgets have delayed or limited street repairs for years, allowing city crews to only patch the pothole-peppered pavement.

Visit www.Journal-News.com or www.MiddletownJournal.com to read the first part of this series.

Butler County’s two largest cities will spend nearly $10 million this year repairing aging water and sewer lines.

More than $7.2 million worth of water, sanitary and storm water repair work is scheduled in Middletown for 2013.

In Hamilton, an estimated $2.3 million in water main replacement projects are scheduled for 2013 and an estimated $250,000 in sanitary sewer projects, excluding what the city has agreed to address in terms of hydraulic deficiencies and major sources that contributed to overflow events.

Hamilton Mayor Pat Moeller said Hamilton’s utility professionals put schedules into place so the replacement of aging lines are done in a timely fashion.

“You don’t want a lot of underground breaks,” Moeller said. “You want to do more preventative type of replacement. You don’t really wait for the breaks to occur at a great expense.”

Hamilton has 554,400 linear feet of water mains. Of that, 62.6 percent dates back to 1979 and before, according to Joy Rodenburgh, Hamilton’s senior civil engineer.

Based on a 50-year time frame, it would cost $147.5 million to replace the mains, she said.

“The projects are funded through user fees,” Rodenburgh said. “No general fund monies are used to fund either water or sanitary projects.”

Replacement projects in Hamilton don’t necessarily lead to rate hikes, according to Moeller.

“Right now, we have established a cash flow, a payment flow to help replace these various underground utilities and functions,” Moeller said. “There is already a formula in place to collect money to put into scheduled replacements. We’ve done that also for gas in the past and it’s more for water coming up in the future.”

Out of 63 southwest Ohio water and sewer providers, Hamilton ranks 34th least expensive city for those two utilities, according to the city of Oakwood’s 2012 water and sewer study. Middletown rates 18th.

“I think we’ve been doing a better job of our utilities, slowly but surely,” said Preston Combs, Middletown’s interim public works and utilities director. “We do have a little more ability budgetarily to deal with some of these than we do our streets. But it’s still a slow improvement.”

The city has an easier time paying for utility work that paving and repairing roads, he said, because of the city’s water, storm water and sewer enterprise funds, which are funded through utility bills.

“It’s not to say we have unlimited money, because to do this work we have to have water and sewer rate increases,” Combs said. “If we want to do a better job to take care of any one of these utilities, we need to raise rates to bring in more money.”

Many factors are considered when selecting projects, including age, repair history, leaks, condition and budget, said Hamilton’s Rodenburgh.

Adding to the complexity and cost of such projects are challenges such as dealing with stream crossings, railroad lines, traffic and existing utilities already in the ground.

Hamilton also has approximately 1,267,200 linear feet of sanitary main, Rodenburgh said. It would cost approximately $500 million to replace the system over a 50-year period, she said.

Because the data entered into the city’s geographic information system for the sanitary system only goes back as far as 2006, the city cannot provide age-related data in that area, Rodenburgh said.

Hamilton’s two largest projects for 2013 are the Symmes Road replacement, which will involve replacing a pipe that is 16 inches in diameter and about 4,400 feet long, and an East Avenue replacement, which involves a water pipe that is 24 inches in diameter and about 1,000 feet long.

“The Symmes Road project, we’ve had some water line breaks out there, but we also are working in cooperation with the resurfacing project that Public Works is doing,” Rodenburgh said. “So it’s a coordinated effort on that one.”

Hamilton’s East Avenue replacement project also relates to water main leakage, she said.

Like more than 770 communities in the United States, Middletown is in the middle of negotiating with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to address the overflow of the city’s combined storm water and sanitary sewer system.

The unfunded federal mandate to significantly reduce the number of overflow events could cost tens of millions of dollars, according to city officials. However, a true dollar figure won’t be known until next year, Combs said. This could also result in sewer fees tripling in order to accomplish it, Combs said.

“We might be able to have a better picture in what we might be able to do and how soon we’re going to have to do it and how much it’s going to cost,” he said.

The city has more than 1.2 million linear feet of the combined sewer system lines. There are nine overflow sites that in an average rain year discharge 85 times into the Great Miami River, or its tributary Dick’s Creek. The U.S. EPA wants to see that cut down to 10 or less times a year.

While the city said the discharge is very diluted, and mostly consists of storm water, the EPA wants the city “to greatly reduce the number of overflows,” even though tests taken at Germantown Road and the Ohio 73 bridge show contamination is minimal.

“The river is cleaner (at Germantown) than (at the Ohio 73 bridge) even with our pipes flowing into it,” said Combs. “The water quality gets better as it goes through town, but they want to reduce it as much as they can.”

Larger Ohio cities — such as Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland — have already received approval for their control plans that will cost each city billions of dollars over a few decades to complete.

“We’re looking at options, different ways to greatly reduce the number of bypasses to the river of combined sewers,” Combs said. “Our deadline is Nov. 1 to have a draft plan to the U.S. EPA.”

After that it will likely take months of reviews, revisions and discussions before a final plan with cost analysis is assembled, which could be in mid to late 2014.

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