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consent decree

We have a consent decree

It appears to be a done deal.

Houston would add $2 billion to its planned sewer system improvements over the next 15 years under a proposed deal with state and federal regulators that is expected to produce higher water bills as soon as next year.

The Environmental Protection Agency has long been concerned that Houston’s cracked, clogged or flooded sewer pipes spill waste into yards and streets hundreds of times each year, contaminating local streams in violation of the Clean Water Act. Eighty percent of area waterways fall short of water quality standards for fecal bacteria.

Rather than sue the city over these long-running problems, the EPA initiated negotiations nearly a decade ago, hoping to produce a “consent decree” specifying projects and procedures Houston would use to reduce spills by upgrading pipes, improving maintenance and educating the public on how to avoid clogging the city’s more than 6,000 miles of sewers, 390 lift stations and 39 treatment plants.

Mayor Sylvester Turner announced Tuesday that talks have been completed; his office expects the item to reach a city council vote as early as July 17.

“It’s good for the city of Houston,” Turner said. “I am proud to have resolved this long-standing problem in a way that will fix problems that have challenged our city for decades and will bring enhanced services to future ratepayers for decades to come.”

The deal would prioritize fixes in nine areas that experience voluminous spills during rainstorms. In an effort to reduce the more numerous spills that are a chronic problem when the skies are clear, the agreement would mandate a more aggressive schedule for assessing and repairing the city’s sewer system.

Houston also would commit to clean and inspect its 127,000 manholes and 5,500 miles of gravity-driven pipes every decade, to carry out more preventative cleanings in problem areas, and to emphasize its program to educate residents not to pour grease, oil and other fats down the drain.

[…]

It is unclear how much water bills would rise as a result of the federal decree. The city has begun a rate study that will incorporate the consent decree and other factors and suggest new rates to take effect in July 2020.

Some council members were told in preliminary briefings this spring that rates would rise about 4 percent in each year of the agreement, resulting in an increase of more than 70 percent by the end of the 15-year term, though Turner professed ignorance at that figure Tuesday. Other cities under comparable decrees, including San Antonio, will double their rates during their agreements.

Turner stressed that the projected overall cost of the deal is “substantially less” than the $5 billion to $7 billion the EPA was demanding in the Obama administration’s final year.

Despite the mayor holding a news conference to announce the agreement, the Turner administration considers the decree confidential, distributing it only to the elected council members and topping it with a memo that mentions fines for those who disclose its contents.

See here, here, and here for the background. I don’t understand the reason for keeping the decree secret. I’ll be happy if Council pushes back against that. As for water rates going up as a result, well, we should have been doing this a long time ago, and last I checked fixing broken things isn’t free. I’ll say again, how much is a lower level of fecal bacteria in your water worth to you? It’s worth a gradually increasing water bill to me.

We’re about to find out how much we’ll pay to fix Houston’s sewer system

Be prepared.

Houston would ramp up spending on its sewer system by $2 billion over 15 years under a proposed deal with state and federal regulators that is expected to produce higher water bills as soon as next year.

The Environmental Protection Agency has long been concerned that Houston’s cracked, clogged or flooded sewer pipes spill waste into yards and streets hundreds of times each year, contaminating local streams in violation of the Clean Water Act. Eighty percent of area waterways fall short of water quality standards for fecal bacteria.

Rather than sue the city over these long-running problems, the EPA initiated negotiations six years ago, hoping to produce a “consent decree” specifying projects and procedures Houston would use to reduce spills by upgrading pipes, improving maintenance and educating the public on how to avoid clogging the city’s more than 6,000 miles of sewers.

Mayor Sylvester Turner’s staff now are briefing City Council members on the terms of the proposal, which could reach a council vote in April. The mayor said in a brief interview Friday he wanted to speak with all council members before discussing details of the deal publicly, but four people who received the briefings confirmed the deal’s length and projected cost. EPA officials declined to comment.

How much residents’ water bills would rise remains hazy. The city will soon begin a rate study, as it does every five years, that will incorporate the consent decree and other factors and suggest new rates to take effect in July 2020. Turner said rates would stay well within EPA guidelines designed to avoid burdening poor residents, though a 2016 Houston Chronicle analysis showed significant rate hikes would still comply with that framework.

Councilman Greg Travis said he was told the decree would add 4 percent to rates each year of the agreement, resulting in a more than 70 percent increase by the end of the 15-year term. It’s unclear whether that figure included assumptions about inflation and population growth, which drive automatic rate increases each spring. Some other cities under comparable decrees, including San Antonio, will double their rates during their agreements.

Still, the mayor stressed that the projected overall cost of the deal is “substantially less” than the $5 billion to $7 billion the EPA was demanding in the Obama administration’s final year. City officials made an anti-regulation argument to the Trump administration — “You cannot run our city from D.C., and you can’t impose on us costs that the people themselves have to bear” — and it succeeded, Turner told the West Houston Association at a luncheon last week.

“We’ll finally move forward with something that’s in the best interest of the city of Houston, something that will not cost us nearly as much, and something I believe will be the best deal that any city has received anywhere in the country,” Turner told the crowd.

See here and here for the background. This is what happens when maintenance is deferred for too long, though as noted in my earlier link, both Mayors White and Parker took steps to address the problem. Just please keep in mind that this is a problem of very long standing, and it’s one that affects us all, though it most definitely affects some more than others. And if you hear anyone complain about the forthcoming hike in water rates, please feel free to ask them what level of fecal bacteria in their water is acceptable to them, and how much they would pay to mitigate that.

Now how much would you pay to fix Houston’s sewer system?

We may be about to find out.

Federal and state authorities sued the city of Houston over its long-running struggle to limit sewage spills on Friday, marking the beginning of the end of a years-long negotiation that could force the city to invest billions to upgrade its sprawling treatment system.

Houston’s “failure to properly operate and maintain” its 6,700 miles of sewer pipes, nearly 400 lift stations and 40 treatment plants caused thousands of “unpermitted and illegal discharges of pollutants” due to broken or blocked pipes dating back to 2005, the suit states. The city also recorded numerous incidents when its sewer plants released water with higher than allowable concentrations of waste into area waterways, the filing states.

The lawsuit by the Department of Justice on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality wants a judge to force Houston to comply with the Clean Water Act and Texas Water Code — typical orders include upgrading pipes, ramping up maintenance and educating the public on how to avoid clogging city pipes — and to assess civil penalties that could reach $53,000 per day, depending on when each violation occurred.

[…]

The filing was spurred by the intervention of a local nonprofit, Bayou City Waterkeeper, which announced in July that it planned to sue the city over the same violations and which filed its own lawsuit on Friday mirroring the EPA’s claims. It states that the city has reported more than 9,300 sewer spills in the last five years alone.

“The city’s unauthorized discharges have had a detrimental effect on, and pose an ongoing threat to, water quality and public health in the Houston area and have caused significant damage to the waters that Waterkeeper’s members use and enjoy,” the nonprofit’s filing states.

Waterkeeper’s July announcement was required by the Clean Water Act, which mandates that citizens or citizen groups planning to sue under the law give 60 days’ notice, in part to allow the EPA or its state counterparts to take their own actions.

See here for the background. This has been going on for a long time, and the city has been in negotiation for a resolution to this. How much it will all cost remains the big question. The one thing I can say for certain is that no one is going to like it. As a reminder, consider this:

Upon taking office in 2004, former mayor Bill White locked utility revenues into a dedicated fund, raised water rates 10 percent, tied future rates to inflation, and refinanced the debt. That was not enough to prevent the debt mountain from risking a utility credit downgrade by 2010, when former mayor Annise Parker took office, so she passed a 28 percent rate hike.

Remember how much some people bitched and moaned about that rate hike? Get ready to experience it all again.

How much would you pay to fix Houston’s sewer system?

Whatever your answer to that question is, the real answer is that it could be quite a lot.

Years of Houston’s cracked, clogged or flooded sewer pipes belching raw waste into residents’ yards and city streets have City Hall facing a federal decree that sources say could force the city to invest $5 billion in upgrades.

As in dozens of cities across the country, the looming Environmental Protection Agency mandate likely will force Houstonians to pay sharply higher water bills to fund the improvements.

[…]

As is the case in Wood Shadows, many of Houston’s sewer overflows reach local bayous and breed bacteria. These violations of the Clean Water Act create health risks severe enough that experts advise against swimming in local waterways, 80 percent of which fall short of water quality standards for fecal bacteria.

Rather than face a lawsuit from the EPA, which enforces the Clean Water Act, city officials have spent the last few years negotiating a so-called consent decree, a binding agreement that specifies projects aimed at reducing spills by upgrading pipes, ramping up maintenance and educating the public on how they can avoid clogging Houston’s 6,700 miles of sewers, such as not pouring grease down the drain.

EPA officials declined comment, and city leaders have resisted discussing details of the talks, but three sources with knowledge of the negotiations say the efforts expected to be required under the mandate could cost an estimated $5 billion.

Mayor Sylvester Turner has acknowledged the negotiations are “significant,” and said he has discussed the decree directly with EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and plans to soon meet with Houston’s Congressional delegation on the issue.

“We are not opposed to making improvements, but we want the costs to be reasonable and spread out over the next 20 years so we can avoid any dramatic spiking of ratepayer rates,” Turner said. “Negotiations are ongoing on all fronts.”

Brent Fewell, an environmental consultant and former top official in the EPA’s water division, agreed that getting more time to comply with a decree can curtail a rate hike. Still, he said, Houstonians should expect to pay more.

“These are big-ticket items. They’re not cheap, and it definitely has an impact,” Fewell said. “There are some communities that have seen as much as 100 percent to 150 percent increases in their water rates based on these consent decrees.”

Houston’s sewers have lagged since the city’s first postwar boom, with City Hall, critics say, tending to make fixes only when forced to by regulators.

Whatever sewage treatment plants could not handle in the 1960s was dumped straight into the bayous, making Houston for decades the region’s single worst water polluter. The Texas Attorney General took the city to court over the issue in 1974, securing a judgment that restricted Houston’s development until new plants were built.

Those investments did not end the spills, however, so another round of decrees spurred a mid-1990s effort that repaired a quarter of the city’s sewer pipes and upgraded many treatment plants and pump stations.

Even that $1.2 billion program didn’t fix the problem, leading to another 2005 state mandate that Houston is scheduled to satisfy this month. That mandate was to replace 1,800 miles of pipe, clean twice that much, and cut grease clogs by passing an ordinance requiring restaurants to clean their grease traps.

For a bit of extra credit, do some reading over at the city’s Wastewater Operations page. I’m reminded of a story I heard from the professor of an urban history class I took in college. He talked about how in New York, specifically in Manhattan, the upper classes lived farther north in the pre-indoor plumbing days, and thus were first in line to both cook and wash with, and dump their waste into, the Hudson and East Rivers. Those of lesser means, who lived south – that is, downstream – from there, were thus “literally eating shit”, as he put it.

Try to keep that in mind when you read this story, because it’s our sewer system and wastewater treatment plants that allow us to avoid a similar fate. Whatever the city negotiates with the EPA, the cost of building more capacity and fixing old leaks will be passed on to all of us, and no one will like it. If you want to blame someone for it, blame all the public officials og generations past that failed to maintain the city’s water infrastructure, and the voters who let them get away with it. It will not be much fun fixing this problem, but the alternatives are all much worse.