By now, few have not heard of SCOPE 10. It has graced our front page countless times, has been the subject of conversation in several meetings of the Cleveland Board of Public Utilities, and will be again when the local utility board meets in joint session with the Cleveland City Council to provide a full update of the progress on Sept. 24.
Such a shared discussion is important because SCOPE 10 is arguably one of the biggest, most encompassing projects Cleveland Utilities has ever undertaken.
Let us first address the acronym and that will answer many questions. The “SCOPE” is not a reference to a popular mouthwash. It stands for Strategic Commitment to Protect the Environment. The “10” is the anticipated term of the initiative — 10 years.
Over the next decade, CU anticipates spending some $30 million, at least — the costs are still subject to change — in order to rehabilitate much, or most, of the existing sewer system. In some older sections of the city, existing sewer lines are cracked, broken or defective. Damaged lines allow inflow and infiltration which is known in utility corners as I/I.
In short, I/I refers to extraneous (unwanted) water that seeps into existing sewer lines through these cracks and breaks. Such intrusion into the existing sewer system contributes to manhole overflows in several city streets and this contributes to localized flooding during periods of heavy rainfall. All this extra water also places excessive strain on CU’s wastewater treatment plant; and, in some isolated cases it can cause sewer backups.
One possible result of backups and flash flooding is the creation of health hazards. Such a predicament can threaten CU’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit, and no government jurisdiction wants this. That’s because NPDES permit violations can lead to involvement by the Tennessee Division of Water Quality Control and even the Environmental Protection Agency.
When state regulators and EPA are forced to enter the picture, it can mean NPDES violation penalties. One such penalty is a sewer moratorium which would inhibit future growth and economic development until sewer system issues have been corrected.
Again, this is not a problem municipal governments and public utilities want to face. That’s because EPA can force utility companies to raise their rates to whatever level necessary to finance sewer improvements.
It is happening in other Tennessee communities such as Knoxville, Brentwood, Nashville, Chattanooga and Oak Ridge, among others. Because budgets are tight, utility companies don’t have immediate access to the kind of money needed to rebuild vast sewer systems; hence, the EPA-forced sewer rate hikes which in the cities previously mentioned reportedly range from 25 to 330 percent.
That’s a “Wow” of the negative sort.
To avoid such EPA mandates and to prevent sewer-rate sticker shock to its customers, CU has instead launched SCOPE 10 and will pay for it through a series of smaller rate hikes over a period of years. As planned currently, CU will invoke sewer rate hikes of 4.5 percent in Fiscal Years 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017, and a 5 percent increase in FY 2019 and 2020.
Some might contend even this proposal sounds excessive, but CU believes customers are more willing to live with small increases over a few years as opposed to 330 percent in one.
It’s a logical approach, one whose alternatives are not inviting.
No one wants higher rates, but stretching them equally into 2020 appears less stressful to customers’ checkbooks that are already being stretched enough.