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Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Consent Decree

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Dealing with the city’s aging sewer system

Add it to the list of major challenges for the Perkins administration and the new city council. Compliance with the consent decree is estimated to be almost three times the original cost estimates.

In 2009 the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported Shreveport to the Department of Justice (DOJ) for the hundreds of sanitary sewer overflows that occur each year. In May of 2014, the city entered into a consent decree with the EPA and DOJ to correct the negative environmental impact that the aging sewer system has had for decades.

The decree requires the city to assess the physical condition of the sewer infrastructure fully and to make repairs as necessary. At the time the city signed off on it the cost estimate was $350 million.

The operative word is “estimate.”

The calculations were pathetic at best. Of course, part of the problem was calculating what could not be seen. The sewer pipes are underground.

Recently, Shreveport Mayor Adrian Perkins and the Shreveport Council virtually choked over the city’s pathetic amount of reserve funds. They may soon be on life support when swallowing the ballooning costs of compliance with the consent decree.

When completed, this massive project will result in a significant reduction in sewer overflows. The work has been broken down into five phases. These fall into designated basins:

Phase I – Cedar Grove Basin

Phase II – Southside, Queensborough, North Highlands, Westside and Choctaw Bayou Basins

Phase III – Cooper Road, Wallace and Broadmoor Basins

Phase IV – Stoner, North Pierre, Bickham Bayou, Country Club and LSU Basins

Phase V – Princess Park, Texas Pierre, Boggy Bayou, Cross Bayou, Lower Cross Lake and Lakeview Basins.

The first phase is essentially complete.

Phase 2 will begin this spring. Design work is now being done on Phase 3, and it will start this summer. Consultants are currently reviewing the remedial measures plan for Phase 4. This plan should be delivered to the city engineer by June, and the design phase will then crank up.

The city has now spent over $424 million on this remedial work. The total costs to complete all five phases could be as high as another $700 million. That would be a billion dollar-plus tab.

The consent decree deadline for full compliance is November 2023. The city is making inquiries to the EPA to possibly extend this date. City engineer Patrick Furlong says that the additional time would allow the city to plan better and spend wiser. Furlong is also replacing the project consultant for the consent decree work. He says a new player should effectuate cost savings.

Funding for this construction is a primary reason for higher water bills. These increases are phased in through 2020. The scheduled water rate increases can pay up to a total of $650 million of the planned 12-year program.

There is no doubt that there will be a substantial funding gap to comply with the consent decree. It is not if, but only how much, additional revenue bonds will need to be issued for the cost. The city may also seek additional loans from the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality.

The city is utilizing three methods for replacement of sewer pipes. The most favored option is cured in place piping (CIPP). This method is trenchless. A chemical liner is pumped into the sewer mains, which creates a new seamless liner within the existing pipe. Another method, which requires trenching, is to insert new pipes into the old pipes. The third is the traditional “dig and replace” old pipes with new pipes.

The massive cost of consent decree work is adversely affecting the repair and maintenance of the city’s water distribution system. Much like sewer pipes, these aging pipes are subject to frequent “blowouts” that require expensive trenching and replacement. Water system pumps and electrical systems generally have a 20-year lifespan.

Much like the financing for the consent decree work, the Department of Water and Sewage (DOWUS) has traditionally issued revenue bonds to fund a structured maintenance program for water mains. Unlike general obligation bonds, revenue bonds are paid from the DOWUS revenues, not real estate ad valorem taxes. The ability to issue additional revenue bonds for these purposes is severely hampered by the need for revenue bond financing for the consent decree.

City hall has had constant complaints about street interruptions and construction projects since the consent decree work started. This has only been matched by citizen criticism over water bills. These can be expected for many more months – in fact, years. The only real variable will be the total costs for EPA compliance.

It’s hard to city officials, much less the average Joe on the street, to get excited about sewer pipes and water mains unless it is at their residence. Like it or not, the EPA consent decree cannot be ignored and is a reality the city must live with.

John Settle’s articles appear in local publications and on his blog Settletalk.com. His email is john@jesettle.com.

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